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a language of its own (it talks to me in tiptoes)

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“Homes,” Ray starts before Brad even gets the chance to say a thing, “You will never guess what I have been up to while you were slummin’ back in Iraq.”

 

Brad considers the facts: His second tour to Iraq — this one with the Royal Marines, but no less of a fuck-up than his first tour — only ended three days ago. He only arrived back in the US— six hours ago, a glance at his watch tells him. Four fucking hours of sleep on his first night back on American soil. It’s a travesty, and Ray really should know better than to disturb Brad when his situational awareness is still fucked and amped up from the theater and there’s no way he wouldn’t pick up his phone on instinct even though it’s only set to vibrate.

 

Given these facts, he feels entirely justified in hanging up without having said a word. His phone buzzes a moment later, but only twice. He elects to ignore it and buries his face in his pillow again. In two or three hours he’ll call his mother, his sisters, Poke, Ray. In that order. Until then, Ray will just have to wait.

 

 

Ray texted him coordinates; Brad finds himself intrigued almost against his will. He still calls his mother and his sisters and Poke first before sitting down with his laptop to find out where the hell Ray wants him to go. They’re all relieved he’s back safe and sound, though there’s a world of difference in the way his mother expresses it and Poke’s dry like any Haji fuckers could ever get the drop on you, man.

 

It’s a sunny day. The window’s open and the breeze feels good on his bare skin. After days, weeks in uniform, it feels good to sit on his couch in just his boxers. He has two and a half weeks of libo spreading out in front of him and no plans beyond surfing, catching up on sleep and riding his bike down to San Diego to visit his parents.

 

The coordinates are for a bar in Palo Alto. Brad gives in to his curiosity and calls Ray back. “What the fuck are you doing in Stanford?”

 

“Ah, young Marine — “

 

“Need I remind you that I’m older than you, Person?”

 

“— let me tell you. Your dearest pal Ray-Ray was right. What was I right about, you might wonder. You get your brains back when you leave the corps, that’s what.”

 

“Are you telling me that you, of all people, are studying at an Ivy League dick-suck university?” There’d been an email from just after Brad had left for England, with Ray’s home address. He’d seen the zip code, of course, but he’d figured that it had either been a big joke — what the fuck would Ray of all people do in Stanford? — or that Ray had gone off the hooks and decided to settle in liberal dipshit country to open his gay bar after all, or something equally retarded. He hadn’t thought Ray was actually going to college.

 

Ray is laughing. “Fuck, yeah. And the best thing is: My band doesn’t suck this time around. You’re gonna come see us, right, homes? Don’t discriminate just because we don’t play Air Supply.”

 

“Why the fuck would I voluntarily subject myself to the noise a whiskey tango farm reject like yourself calls music?” Brad asks, and hangs up on Ray for the second time in one day. That, more than anything, tells him he really is home— in the theater, he could never just turn his comms on silent and leave them in the living room while he goes surfing. Evading Ray had been impossible in Iraq. It’s easy now.

 

 

Brad comes home, skin stretched tight from sunshine and salt water, his muscles tired and used. It’s nothing like the bone-deep weariness he associates with war, and he’s feeling more like himself, like Brad Colbert rather than the Iceman. His combat effectiveness is greatly diminished and he revels in the fact that that’s all right. Here and now, he doesn’t need to be combat ready.

 

His laptop still shows the maps he’d pulled up earlier. His phone tells him Ray called seven more times; it makes Brad smile. Persistent motherfucker. They both know Brad will give in and visit, but he gives himself two more days of surfing and readjusting, of settling back into his own skin, to get used to the way his arms feel light without a weapon in his hands, his head without a Kevlar and a comm pressed over his ear.

 

 

Eight hours of nothing but the open road and his bike beneath him. Ray could have picked a worse place than Stanford and Brad figures he’ll enjoy the ride, spend a few days with Ray before driving down to see his parents. Then he’ll see. He can surf in San Diego or he can make the trip back and surf in Oceanside, whatever he feels like. Reacquainting himself with that kind of freedom is refreshing.

 

His body won’t let him sleep in, but that’s all right. He spends the morning - his third day back home - surfing. He jerks off in the shower, mind blissfully blank and the water pressure a revelation where it pounds on his back. He eats something. He pretends for another twenty minutes that it isn’t a foregone conclusion that he’ll get on his bike and drive down. Ray will never give it a rest if he doesn’t, though; that’s what he tells himself.

 

He doesn’t pack much, and before two pm he’s on the road. He makes it down to Stanford in six hours and there’s a certain sense of satisfaction in that, and in not getting a speeding ticket.

 

Brad stops at the bar instead of Ray’s place, locks his bike and the helmet, and opens his jacket to let the wind cool him down a little as he walks the block, scoping out the neighborhood. It’s surprisingly upscale for Ray, meaning it looks to be the average student bar. Brad orders a beer and chicken wings and settles down on a table. It’s only eight, but Ray is nothing if not predictable in this (or, as Brad likes to think, maybe he’s just that good in predicting anyone’s behavior) and Brad doesn’t have to wait for long until Ray arrives.

 

At first, Brad doesn’t even realize it because Ray comes in surrounded by a group of what must be other students. Civilians. Some of them are likely members of his band, but unless it’s a fucking choir, that doesn’t cover all of them. Brad has one moment to feel out of place and regret coming to Palo Alto. He’s a career marine; Ray got out. If it weren’t for Ray’s insistence, they wouldn’t be friends at all. Brad doesn’t hang out with anyone from the corps except for Poke when he’s stateside. The moment passes quickly enough when Ray tries to jump onto his back while Brad is still sitting at the bar.

 

Brad has him pinned in a headlock seconds later. Ray wheezes, laughing, and taps out. His friends have taken a step forward, one of them— baby-faced with cock-sucker lips — has his mouth open to argue, eyes blazing angrily before he catches Ray’s expression and clues in on the fact that Ray jumped Brad, that this isn’t an attack or an excuse for a bar fight. Two of the girls have their hands up to cover their mouths, expression wide in shock. Brad wants to roll his eyes.

 

“So much for getting your brains back, Person,” he judges, and lets go. “You’re still as retarded as ever.”

 

“Yo, homes,” Ray starts, chest puffed out and turning back to his posse. Friends. Whatever. “This here is Brad, my TL. Brad, meet Nate, Jim, Sarah, Charley, Jenny, Rob and Tom.”

 

Brad still wants to roll his eyes. He gives them a nod instead. One of the girls - Sarah, a pretty brunette - turns to the baby-faced guy who is, apparently, named Nate, mouthing “TL?”

 

“Team leader,” comes the prompt reply. Brad files that away for later; the kid looks all about twelve years old, but so far he’s the only one who’s proved not completely dumb, even if his situational awareness is pretty shitty if he honestly thought Brad’s putting Ray down had been a genuine attack. Brad’s a recon marine; if he’d meant to hurt Ray he’d have had him on the ground before Nate could’ve even opened his mouth, no matter that Ray’s recon as well.

 

 

They settle on a table, and Ray drags Brad away from the bar and onto a chair in between Sarah and Ray. He endures it. They talk about movies (Brad hasn’t seen any of them because Iraq’s cinemas didn’t require invading), politics (Brad doesn’t want to know any of that because he’s on libo, thank you very fucking much, he’ll deal with whatever insanity the government is trying to shove at him when he’s back on duty), their coursework (fucking students), people they know. From what Brad can tell, they all study different things. Ray’s apparently majoring in film and business, not what Brad would have expected. Nate and Sarah are both doing political science and pre-law, and the rest of them are all over the humanities department. On more than one occasion, Brad almost tells them they’re all a bunch of special Olympics gay Ivy League retards.

 

He just got out of an active war zone. He isn’t stupid enough to paint a target on his back like that, even though he doubts they could do any actual damage. He’d like to see them try. Still, he keeps his silence for the most part, observes. This Ray is so far removed from the one in theater, doped up on whatever uppers he could get his hands on, sleep-deprived and torn up. It’s good to see, but he isn’t going to admit to that.

 

Nate seems to be the unofficial leader of the group, and Brad figures out quickly that it’s well-enough deserved: Nate’s quick and intelligent, and, more than once, he catches Brad watching, analyzing, and there’s something in those green eyes, not calculating or judgemental but observing Brad as much as Brad observes them.

 

It should feel really fucking awkward. Instead, when Brad raises one eyebrow, the corner of Nate’s mouth lifts in acknowledgment, a hint of a challenge and a hint of amusement.

 

 

They get on stage an hour later: Brad already knew that Ray played the guitar. So does Nate. Jenny sings the first song, Jim is on the drums and Charley on the bass, Tom on the keyboard. Sarah and Bob are the only ones who stay at the table with Brad. At least the music is loud enough that they don’t need to make any conversation; Brad has nothing to say to them.

 

The first three songs are bearable. Mostly rock, two songs that Brad recognizes and only one that he knows some of the lyrics to, but then he isn’t here to sing along. If Ray had tried to drag him into a karaoke bar, Brad would have put his foot down. Instead, he leans back and takes another long drag of his beer and watches as Jenny slides into the background and Nate starts singing, voice carrying easily, backed up only by the drums. Brad swallows and sips his beer and doesn’t try to tear his eyes away from the stage.

 

He’s on libo. He’s allowed to watch a pair of cock-sucker lips half-obscured by the microphone so long as he isn’t obvious about it. Brad isn’t listening to the song so much as letting the cadence, the rise and fall of Nate’s voice.

 

 

The set ends after an hour that seems much longer. Ray’s energized in a way that reminds Brad of Iraq except it’s lacking the quiet desperation and the edge of hysteria they’d all carried during that first invasion, driving into ambush after ambush in open humvees, nothing like what 1st Recon is supposed to do. Nate wipes his hands on his pants and settles back. Brad tells himself he isn’t tempted to follow the course of Nate’s hands. They all drink more beer.

 

“Don’t tell me you enjoyed your time with the Royal Bastards, Brad, you wound me,” Ray protests loudly when Brad deigns to tell him that his time with the Royal Marines had been “less of a waste of time than expected”.

 

“I learned things to make you and your brethren here weep in undignified misery for the knowledge of how utterly worthless your presence on this planet is.” The group seems somewhat taken aback by that, for reasons Brad cannot fathom because he’s said more insulting things with less inflection, and they’re friends with Ray Person of all people. They should be used to far worse. Ray is grinning widely, though, and Nate snorts. At least two members of the group  aren’t complete wastes of space.

 

 

“I thought about joining the Marines, after my BA,” Nate tells him on the way back; apparently Nate lives in the same apartment complex as Ray. “That’s how I got to know him and joined the band.” Brad is pushing his bike because he is neither  willing to leave it at the bar nor is he stupid enough to drive, given how many beers he’s had.

 

He’s nowhere near drunk, but just relaxed enough that it seems like a good idea when Ray tells them he has a bottle of Jack and that Nate should come the fuck up, no protests, you don’t have class tomorrow, you lazy fuck.

 

“Imagine what Iraq would’ve been like if we’d had a CO like Nate, homes. Would’ve been sweet, wouldn’t it?”

 

Brad’s only known Nate Fick for one evening, and part of that was spent listening to the guy sing rock songs. He shouldn’t feel inclined to agree, so he just shrugs and then tallies it in Nate’s favor that he doesn’t look hurt by the lack of immediate and enthusiastic agreement with Ray’s opinion.

 

 

They drink, pressed together on Ray’s dingy couch that definitely wasn’t made to hold the combined weight of two recon marines and one college student who’d almost-but-then-changed-my-mind-and-traveled-instead joined the marines. Nate tells them about traveling across Europe. He and Brad compare stories about the UK. No one brings up Iraq in anything other than jokes or insults. Brad is glad for it: his second tour is still too fresh in mind to reminisce about the fucking invasion with Ray, and he’s never been inclined to explain to civilians what it’s like. There’s no words for it — either you know combat or you don’t.

 

Either you’re a marine or you’re not.

 

Still, he figures Nate would have made a good one; if he hadn’t bowed under the pressure of asinine superior officers and shit that always, always rolls downhill.

 

 

He and Nate are arguing the finer points of Roman military strategy when Ray gets up. Brad seizes the opportunity to stretch his legs, though his thigh feels cold where it’d been pressed against Nate’s and isn’t anymore now that he’s got more space.

 

“You two are so fucking special, it warms my heart, but unlike some people here, Uncle Ray-Ray actually has classes in the morning, so excuse me, ladies. I’m going to make out with your pillow.”

 

“Enjoy that, given it’s the only action you’re likely to get in your life, Person.” Brad’s seen the looks Jenny throws Ray and vice-versa, he’s pretty sure there’s something going on there, but why pass up on a perfectly good chance to insult Ray when it’s only facts standing in his way?

 

“I should probably get going, too,” Nate mutters when Ray is out of the room, and doesn’t move at all.

 

 

Two hours later, they’re still arguing. They’ve also emptied most of the bottle and Brad is feeling the effects of it. He feels vaguely detached from everything, like he’s floating. It’s a little like sleep-deprivation only much nicer, and Nate’s face is flushed and his lips are very pink.

 

Brad rubs his thumb over the neck of his beer bottle. He realizes he’s been staring at Nate’s lips only when Nate falls silent. His situational awareness is slipping and he can’t bring himself to mind: he’s in Ray Person’s home, a place that might look like a metaphorical war-zone but definitely isn’t one, and Nate isn’t hostile.

 

Nate licks his lips. His gaze is keen, eyes clear despite the alcohol. “I know you’re not allowed to tell—”

 

“Then don’t fucking ask.” Brad does the only thing he can think of to shut Nate up: he leans forward and kisses him. (That’s a lie, he could have thought of a million other ways to silence Nate; this one just happened to coincide with what he - badly - wanted to do. He allows himself to pretend, though.)

 

It’s a huge risk. Brad loves the Corps, regardless of how they’ve fucked him and others over time and again. He can’t imagine being anything other than a marine. It’s not just what he does, it’s who he is. To jeopardize that for a pair of pretty lips attached to a very male body is really fucking stupid. With Nate’s lips soft and warm under his, pliant for a moment before Nate catches on and opens his mouth, fists his hands in Brad’s shirt to pull him closer, turning the kiss into something hard and wet and good, Brad can’t bring himself to care.

 

He’s just drunk enough to use that as an excuse.

 

Brad doesn’t usually do this; he doesn’t usually make-out with guys on couches in student apartments and it isn’t only about Nate’s gender. Brad’s known, since he figured out what his dick was for, that he didn’t much care about gender. His employer thinks differently, though, and he’s been policing himself ever since he joined up. Beyond that, though, Brad doesn’t usually just kiss with no ulterior motive. Most of the whores he fucks he never kisses at all. Why complicate matters?

 

So he doesn’t usually do this: The slide of lips against lips, shifting from lazy and languid, hazy with alcohol and almost sloppy, to hard and wanting, needing, more and now and yes please and hands sliding under his shirt with just enough pressure not to tickle. He’s lost track of time, he could do this forever. His cock feels heavy, hard between his legs, insistent pressure against his jeans, but it doesn’t register as a priority. Exploring Nate’s mouth — he’s a recon marine, it’s only right that he familiarize himself thoroughly with uncharted territory — seems like enough.

 

Kissing isn’t all they do, but the progression from talking to barely touching to shirtless and lying back on Ray’s couch with Nate over him, beautiful and warm, biting down at Brad’s lower lip and with his legs on either side of Brad’s hips, grinding down, that takes a while. It feels natural, like this was where they’ve been heading ever since Nate stepped closer with his eyes blazing, ready to protect his friend even though Ray needed no protection at all from Brad of all people.

 

Brad hasn’t been touched by anyone else in months, not like this. He’d paid for it, just before shipping out, a night with Lisa who gave exceptional head and didn’t talk much, left quietly after. He’d appreciated it at the time. It’s only now that he becomes aware of how much he’s missed the warmth of skin against his, of enthusiastically shared space. He’s missed the proximity of another body like this, with no intent to shield or to harm; physical contact. No one touched him in Iraq, not like this.

 

Nate pushes his hips down again and Brad groans. He isn’t going to last long. He’ll be damned if he comes in his pants like some oversexed teenager. It doesn’t take much maneuvering for Brad to get a hand between their bodies, to undo his button and zipper and move on to Nate’s — who fortunately catches on quickly, twisting until Brad can push his khakis and boxer briefs down. He doesn’t bother with his own jeans, just pushes them open and his own underwear out of the way. It’s enough to be able to wrap his hand around both of them. He revels in Nate’s soft hiss. It’s a little dry and not particularly dignified, but it’s contact and pressure, and Nate is worrying his lips between his teeth as if to keep from making further sounds, face screwed up in a combination of concentration and pleasure, hips pushing into Brad’s grip.

 

It’s far from the best hand job Brad’s ever gotten or even given, sloppy and dry. It’s perfect, and he comes in what would be an embarrassingly short time, if not for how long it’s been, white heat coursing through him. He has to focus on keeping still, not arching off the couch, to keep on stroking Nate even as he lets his own, softening cock slip from his grasp. Nate’s gasping into his mouth now, holding himself up on his lower arms, hovering just over Brad and kissing him again and again like he can’t stay away from Brad’s mouth.

 

Brad feels strangely pleased that Nate doesn’t last much longer than he did.

 

 

After they’ve both come down, Nate kisses him again, slow and lazy. Brad can’t quite bring himself to mind, even though it’s really fucking gay, but not before long, he’s nudging Nate off him and walking to Ray’s dingy bathroom to clean up. He’s polite enough to throw Nate a wet towel as well, though most of the mess landed on Brad.

 

Brad’s thankful that it isn’t more awkward than it is; he’s just relaxed enough now to ignore how Nate’s gaze has turned watchful and observant again, sharper than it’s been the last few hours. He isn’t relaxed enough not to feel instinct making his skin itch (his instincts don’t tell him to fight and they just fucked, there’s only one left), though, and Nate seems to catch on quickly enough. Brad spares a moment to be glad that Nate is neither stupid nor some pansy gay-ass girly boy who’d want to stay and cuddle or talk about it.

 

Nate leaves and Brad goes to sleep on the same couch they just made out on. He doesn’t think about it, and he doesn’t dream about warm hands over his skin.

 

He doesn’t dream of Iraq, either.

 

 

Ray has classes the next day. Brad sends him on his way with a one-fingered salute from his position on the couch and goes back to sleep. He goes for a run and takes a shower — the water pressure in Ray’s apartment is sadly lacking compared to Brad’s shower, but still far superior to anything he’s experienced in Iraq. Of course, that isn’t particularly difficult.

 

He texts Ray and gets directions to the student cafeteria. It’s not that different from mess hall, and chow is chow. Brad stopped being picky long ago - so long as it’s not an MRE with fucking peanut butter, he’s good.

 

Jenny’s sitting next to Ray, Nate across from them. Brad doesn’t hesitate before sitting down beside Nate. He gets some smiles, a “Yo homes” from Ray. Nate’s gaze stays on him a second too long, but not even Ray notices. Brad has to remind himself not to stay completely still, motionless like he’d be in a potentially hostile situation, assessing. He forces himself to breathe easily. He’s in the cafeteria of Stanford fucking University. No one here knows and most would not give a damn that he made out — and then some — with Nate Fick last night.

 

Nate doesn’t seem like he’s about to tell on Brad, either, and even then it’d be Brad‘s word against Nate’s — and Brad’s reputation in the recon community as well as his not inconsiderable skill-set should back him up. He has no reason to worry overly much about DADT. He knows himself well enough to realize that that isn’t the only reason he’s feeling uncomfortable — he doesn’t do stuff like that, sex without paying with someone that he might see again, someone who’s friends with someone that Brad is friends with.

 

A fucking soap opera, that’s what this is, and Brad has inadvertently become the main character. That just serves him right.

 

 

He keeps waiting for it to be awkward and Nate, with his watchful green eyes and full lips, keeps sidestepping his expectations neatly. By the end of the meal, they’re back to arguing about military strategy and whether or not sending anyone to Iraq was the right thing. It isn’t even a real argument, because they find themselves agreeing with a lot of points the other makes, so it’s more of a pleasant if competitive back and forth of arguments, a battle of wits.

 

Brad’s spent most of his year fighting physical battles. He’s not surprised to find himself enjoying this, but how much he does, that comes as a surprise.

 

 

Brad leaves the day after, driving down to Oceanside again and then further to San Diego. He doesn’t think about Ray who looks much better than he did while he was still a marine, and he doesn’t think about Nate.

 

(To his credit, Nate didn’t ask whether he could see Brad again, didn’t push at all. Brad’s almost disappointed, except it’s exactly what he wanted.)

 

His parents are happy to see him, and he lets them fuss over him for a while.

 

 

From: n.fick@gmail.com

To: bradcolbert@gmail.com

Subject:

 

Brad—

 

Got your email from Ray, I hope you don’t mind. One of my political science classes (military policy, don’t laugh, I know you think we’re all “Ivy League dick-sucks”) asks for a paper and I want to write about the impact policy choices have on the ground personnel. Would you mind if I asked you a few questions?

 

Let me know.

 

Nate.

 

Brad reads the email three times and then wonders whether he only imagined making out with the guy. He hadn’t expected to hear from Nate again, to be honest. It had been a random (and most likely ill-advised) hook-up, and he’s lucky he got away as cleanly as he did. Still, this doesn’t read like the kind of message he’d have expected if he’d had any expectations to begin with.

 

It seems reasonable enough, if you ignore the bit where Brad usually hates talking to fucking civilians about what he does. Nate, though, Nate’s proven to be smart; quick and perceptive.

 

He emails back:

 

Sure.

- bc

 

He figures Nate will email him a list of questions, he’ll answer and that’ll be that. He’ll do his civic duty, his part for the education of this country. Even with how little he knows about Nate, he figures the guy will go far. It’s in Brad’s best interest to make sure that the leaders of tomorrow know not to send him into shitholes in open humvees.

 

That’s all there is to it.

 

 

Nate doesn’t email him a list of questions. In fact, Nate doesn’t email him back for so long that Brad wonders if he offended Nate with his short answer. If he did, that’s tough luck for Nate, he decides.

 

He wishes he could say he forgets about it, but he doesn’t.

 

Almost three weeks later, he gets a call from Ray (not in itself strange, Ray’s been annoying him regularly now that they’re both in the same country), telling him the band’s been invited to play in a couple bars along the west coast and they’ll play near Oceanside, too. Brad knows, even before Ray’s said the words, that he’s expected to be there.

 

It might not be terrible, so he doesn’t mind.

 

The next morning, he finds another email in his inbox:

 

From: n.fick@gmail.com

To: bradcolbert@gmail.com

Subject: Re:

 

Brad,

 

At this point you’ve probably heard from Ray that we’ll be near your base soon. I was wondering if we could meet then so that I can ask you in person about the policy impact. Didn’t write earlier because I wasn’t sure this little band tour was going to work out.

 

I really appreciate that you’re willing to help me on this paper. Thank you.

 

Best,

Nate

 

For a moment, he finds himself looking forward to seeing Ray’s crappy little band and Nate again.

 

 

Ray gives him updates on how their ‘tour’ is going — they have two weeks of holidays and play in a different bar somewhere in the state of California every other day for those two weeks. “Nate really did one hell of a job in organizing the whole thing. Seriously, man, I wish we’d had someone with that sense of logistics in Iraq, would’ve made the whole buttfuck a lot more pleasant, if you know what I mean.”

 

Brad doesn’t really care about updates on the band. Sure, they’re not awful, but they’re not Air Supply, either. He’s not invested in their success beyond the fact that, apparently, it makes Ray happy, and, somehow, Brad got roped into being friends with Ray, so it’s his duty to be at least somewhat invested in Ray Person’s happiness.

 

Beyond that, he doesn’t care.

 

 

The bar’s more crowded than Brad expected, especially given that they hadn’t drawn this big of a crowd in the bar back in Palo Alto. He settles by the bar, letting his beer dangle between his fingers. He’s got a good view of the stage from this spot, and he doesn’t fool himself into thinking that it wasn’t deliberately chosen.

 

They play almost the same set as when Brad saw them before, and during Jenny’s songs he finds himself assessing the crowd rather than watching the band. (He isn’t watching Nate’s fingers strumming his guitar. He isn’t remembering how those fingers felt against his naked skin.) They seem to enjoy the music, at least. The atmosphere’s pretty good.

 

The next song has Nate singing, and just like last time, Brad finds himself surreptitiously watching Nate’s lips again. The urge to kiss Nate again surprises him. He agreed with Nate that they’d meet at Brad’s place tomorrow. Brad would have suggested a more neutral venue, but if he’s going to be talking about his experiences in Iraq, he doesn’t want any soccer mom listening in while they sit in a café. It’s bad enough that he has to talk about it to a civilian at all.

 

“He is so hot,” a girl shouts at her friend, close enough for Brad to overhear. He finds himself rolling his eyes and thinks back to the expression on Nate’s face the moment he came.

 

 

Ray finds Brad after the set, sweaty and hyper, grinning widely and talking a mile a minute. Again, it’s pretty much par for the fucking course, but the girls suddenly flocking around the two of them and eying them both as though they’re pieces of meat, that’s new. It only gets worse when Nate and Tom join them. Ray goes off to search for Jenny — apparently Ray’s been tapping that for two weeks now and has “high hopes, my man, high hopes”. Apparently he really fucking likes her. It’s disgustingly sweet, and if Ray hadn’t already left the marines, Brad would have been forced to make even more fun of him than he already does.

 

Nate leans against the bar, elbow just barely touching Brad’s. It could be accidental.

 

“Ray’s been chasing Jenny for months. I’m not surprised she’s finally given in,” he tells Brad. Brad raises an eyebrow. Why the fuck should he care?

 

One corner of Nate’s mouth lifts, self-deprecatingly. My bad, of course you don’t give a shit, it seems to say. Or maybe Brad’s reading too much into this. It’s not like he knows Nate particularly well. Certainly not well enough to read him with any kind of certainty.

 

Nate mentions to Tom that Brad’s agreed to talk to him about his experiences on the ground, how policy choices have affected him. Brad barely refrains from glaring and walking away right then and there. He agreed to it, yes, but that doesn’t mean that he wants people to know about that. Tom isn’t in the class, though, so at least he won’t come knocking on Brad’s door asking for the same treatment.

 

Still, Brad excuses himself soon after. Nate touches his arm, fingers warm even through the material of Brad’s shirt, eyes bright. “I’ll see you tomorrow. I really appreciate it, Brad.” His tone is almost formal, polite— it’s very distant. Brad supposes that’s a good thing.

 

 

Nate is perfectly on time. Brad opens the door, coffee in hand. While he’s State-side, he makes a point to think of it as coffee rather than November Juliet. No point in thinking in a way that is incomprehensible to everyone he talks to outside of the base; if he thinks it he might slip and say it, and then he’ll be forced to explain.

 

He offers Nate some coffee as well, and for a while they drink coffee and exchange pleasantries. It’s physically painful: not stilted or awkward, exactly, but Brad hates small-talk. He thought Nate was better than this. Why are they complying with societal expectations all of the sudden?

 

Nate hasn’t gotten any less observant, though, and he’s putting his cup down a moment later, a curious twist to his mouth. Brad needs to stop looking at Nate’s lips. He needs to stop remembering how they opened up under his. Nate’s behavior since that night has made it abundantly clear that he doesn’t want anything more from Brad, except some answers, help with his paper. That suits Brad just fine, no matter what his libido might have to say about it.

 

Except, if that’s really the case, it doesn’t explain why Nate is crowding Brad against the kitchen counter, or why Brad is letting him. Nate takes Brad’s cup away from him, sets that aside as well, and Brad watches with a raised eyebrow, a silent what the fuck?, but he’s willing to see this through, to see where Nate is going with this.

 

Nate’s hands settle on Brad’s hips and Nate’s pretty tall, admittedly, but Brad is still taller, and so Nate has to lean up. Brad doesn’t make it easier on him, staying still — part of it is simply surprise, part of it might be something petty: Nate let him think that he didn’t want this, wasn’t here for this, so he should have to work for it now. That Brad was on the same page as Nate didn’t matter on that one.

 

Nate kisses him, then, steady and so sure of his welcome, confident that his advances won’t be rejected. Maybe Brad’s been a bit more obvious about his appreciation of Nate’s lips than he’d like to admit. He stays still, unmoving, for a moment longer, but when Nate’s tongue swipes over his lower lips, he gives in with a groan, hands coming up to rest on Nate’s back and his lips falling open. He doesn’t know for how long they kiss, loses track of time completely, and this time he can’t even blame the alcohol for that, just Nate’s mouth and tongue and the soft sounds he makes when Brad nips at his lips or rubs his hand down Nate’s back.

 

Eventually, they pull back. Nate’s lips are red, swollen, and Brad finds himself fighting the desire to run his thumb over them. The knowledge that he’s the reason Nate looks like that sits heavy and warm in his gut. “Didn’t you have a paper to work on?” he finally asks, pleased to find that his voice is dry and even, betraying nothing.

 

Nate looks down; he doesn’t quite blush but it’s there in the way he ducks his head, in his smile. “There was no paper. I mean, I’ve prepared some questions in case you didn’t seem like you’d want to do this again, but I don’t actually have to write a paper for that class.”

 

“Jesus fucking Christ,” Brad mutters, but he recognizes a superior strategic move when he sees one and he can appreciate it. Suddenly, the way Nate’d been behaving last night, telling Tom what Brad agreed to and giving them both the perfect cover for this, it makes a lot more sense. With a mind like that, Nate would have made one hell of an officer. Nate hesitates for a moment, not taking aback per se by Brad’s reaction, but it’s the first sign of uncertainty that he’s displayed so far and Brad doesn’t like it.

 

He pulls Nate back against him.

 

 

Brad didn’t mean to do this again, with Nate or at all. There’s a reason he generally sticks to whores, but it fades under the insistent onslaught of Nate’s lips and tongue and hands, fingers tugging at the waistband of Brad’s jeans and dipping below it, pushing and asking, and Brad finds himself entirely willing to give, to do this. Nate isn’t emotional, and Nate’s proven his discretion. It’s still a risk, but a justifiable one, and if the drunken sex last time was any indication, it should be pretty fucking amazing when they’re sober.

 

Turns out that it is.

 

 

Nate doesn’t linger very long, after. He leaves Brad with a list of locations and dates of their further tour, but there’s no expectation in his voice when he tells Brad to come see them if he has time.

 

“We’ve finally settled on a name,” he tells Brad, just before he’s leaving. “Whiskey Tango. It was Ray’s suggestion.”

 

There’s a twinkle in his eyes when he says it, and Brad can’t help but laugh, even as he’s shaking his head in disbelief. “That fucking retard.” It comes out fond, and Nate’s smiling, turning briefly to raise one hand in a sloppy salute. Then he’s gone.

 

 

When he isn’t deployed, Brad leads a fairly unremarkable life — unremarkable not in the sense that a lot of people lead the same or even a similar kind of life, but in that he has a certain routine, though it’s one that’s interrupted by training exercises in buttfuck, nowhere at times. While he’s in Oceanside, he has regular working hours. He visits Poke and his family every once in a while - Gina insists that he come by at least once a month, and as a general rule, Brad makes a point not to cross Gina Espera. He spends his weekends surfing or riding his bike. More often than not, he gets calls from any one of the marines he’s toured with — Ray most frequently, of course, because Ray figures they’re best friends and pals, and Brad doesn’t have the heart to disabuse him of the notion, not to mention that at this point, it’d probably be a lie to even try. He also hears from Hasser, Kocher, Rudy, even from Stafford once, though he isn’t convinced Stafford hadn’t been drunk and dialing the wrong number. How his number got distributed in the first place, he’d rather not know.

 

Nate’s emails don’t exactly become part of the routine, because they don’t come regularly, but they’re frequent enough regardless. Nate sends him anything from links to newspaper articles or academic articles that he thinks Brad might find either interesting or completely ridiculous to questions on military policy - turns out that the only thing he’d lied about was having to write a paper for the course, he’s still interested - or anecdotes that Brad isn’t quite sure what to make of. He finds himself almost looking forward to the emails.

 

In return, Brad sends: long-winded insults about academics so far removed from reality that they could probably not find their own dick if someone was busy sucking it, insights into the workings of the well-oiled (so long as there’s enough lube) machine that is the US Marine Corps and its workings abroad that he doesn’t need to remind Nate not to quote him on, things he doesn’t really share with people, rants about the manifold incompetence of POGs.

 

Brad wonders, sometimes, if this makes them friends.

 

 

They have sex three more times:

 

Once in a motel, after another gig. Whiskey Tango is far from famous, but they’ve apparently been making a name for themselves within student circles at least — or so Ray informs Brad. They’ll probably start sending out demo tapes soon. Ray’s hoping they’ll make it big and then he can get Limp Biskit to open for them. Apparently it’s his new goal in life. In the motel, Nate lets Brad press him into the sheets and fuck him open, slow and hard, and hearing Nate beg, hearing the way he moans Brad’s name when he comes without Brad touching his cock, that’s going to give Brad material enough for countless combat jacks.

 

Once in Nate’s apartment, a place just as tiny as Ray’s but infinitely tidier, when Brad’s visiting Ray to get him off his back. Ray goes on a date with Jenny that Brad graciously bows out off because he has no interest in “watching Person make gooey eyes at the unfortunate female stupid enough not to run the other way immediately”. Nate snorts a laugh at that and pushes Brad against the door, sinking to his knees and holding him in place with firm hands over his hips, even as he does his level best to ensure that Brad’s brain cells leave his body by route of his dick. He’d known, hadn’t he, that Nate’s lips were made for this.

 

Once more at Brad’s place, because apparently Nate got an interview with someone on base about something or other (Brad remembers, he just doesn’t particularly care) and so he’d asked to crash at Brad’s. He actually sleeps on the couch that night, like it says in the email, because they never made it to the bed, too busy kissing and touching and needing skin on skin right the fuck now, damn it. They almost drift off to sleep on the couch, but Brad’s stomach itches and he heaves himself up, throwing Nate a wet washcloth and then wandering into the bedroom naked. He doesn’t catch Nate’s expression properly when he turns to pause in the doorway for a moment, but the quiet resolve he thinks he sees surprises him, because it seems so out of place, such a direct contrast to the lazy and fucked-out way Brad feels. Nate doesn’t say anything, though, and Brad doesn’t offer to let him sleep in the bed, though it’s certainly big enough for two grown men.

 

The time after that is perhaps more significant.

 

 

Brad’s gotten used to the idea that they are, in fact, doing this. He didn’t exactly seek out a fuck buddy — or is the term friends with benefits more appropriate, given that their email exchanges are certainly friendly? — but he seems to have acquired one regardless. The sex is certainly good enough to make it worth it for Brad. There’s something to be said for an enthusiastic partner who isn’t in it for the money only, though Brad’s never minded that when it came to whores.

 

There’s still the risk of discovery, but they’re careful, and Brad isn’t really worried.

 

He isn’t sure what exactly Nate is getting out of this, except the obvious — the sex really is very good.

 

They don’t exactly plan their get-togethers and they don’t have sex with any sort of regularity. There’s no pattern to it and there’s no booty calls. If Brad felt inexplicably horny tomorrow, he still thinks it’d be more likely that he’d find himself a whore than that he’d arrange something with Nate. There’s too much distance between them for this thing to be practical.

 

Yet they’re apparently doing this.

 

Most days, Brad’s perfectly happy with just his right hand. It isn’t as though he fucked a different whore every weekend before Nate, so it doesn’t bother him that he isn’t getting laid every weekend now. He’s not that oversexed, no matter what impression anyone might be getting from marines.

 

It’s just that he’s been back from Iraq for over six months at this point, and Nate’s the only person he’s had sex with. The only person he’s had any particular desire to have sex with, too.

 

It’s just surprising, that’s all.

 

 

Brad didn’t mean to mention it, at least not right away, but it’s almost the first thing out of his mouth, as soon as he’s closed the door to the hotel room behind him:

 

“I’m being deployed again.”

 

Nate’s expression does something funny, then, something that Brad can’t quite follow, sliding from anticipation to dread and something that looks akin to sorrow into determination again before it’s all muted: not locked away, not entirely, but as though Nate’s decided to focus on other things for the time being. Brad can’t really make sense of it; he’s not sure he’s trying very hard.

 

This time, they’ve arranged to meet just for this, deliberate in a way none of their previous encounters were.

 

Nate gets up from the bed he’d been reading on, stepping up to Brad and kissing him. Nate’s eyes are wide-open throughout, and Brad blinks down at him, sees green and green and then closes his eyes after all and lets the sensation of Nate so close take over his senses instead.

 

That they have sex isn’t what blindsides Brad so much as the how:

 

It’s quiet, but intense. Brad finds he has no defenses against the fierceness in Nate’s gaze, in his expression, and he lets Nate strip them both, lets Nate spread him out on the sheets, lets Nate touch him all over. He lets Nate press one, then two fingers inside of him, dripping with lube and uncomfortable at first, though not painful. Nate moves, shifts, changing the angle until Brad’s a shivering mess, hard and leaking and wanting, but none of his curses convince Nate to move any quicker.

 

It isn’t until Brad’s close, reduced to moaning and swearing only, that Nate presses in, slow and steady and his gaze holding Brad’s, uncompromising. Brad wants to look away and he wants to give himself to Nate entirely, and when he comes, it’s almost a relief because it means he can close his eyes without feeling like he’s missing something, like he’s disappointing Nate somehow.

 

Nate comes soon after. Brad doesn’t try to decode the emotion he reads on Nate’s face. He doesn’t want to know. This isn’t the uncomplicated sex they’ve been having, that he’d been meaning to have tonight. Nate doesn’t let him break the mood that’s settled over them, though, pressing Brad’s wrists into the pillow in a silent but unequivocal order that Brad finds himself instinctively obeying, his body stilling.

 

Nate cleans them both with wipes from the nightstand and then settles over Brad. It couldn’t exactly be classified as cuddling; there’s no holding anyone — with the possible exception of Nate’s weight and expectations pining Brad to the bed, but he feels heavy and sated, so it isn’t as though he’s protesting particularly loudly. It’s just two bodies sharing the same space, and if their legs happen to tangle together, and if Nate’s head is resting against Brad’s shoulder, well. It isn’t as though anyone is here to see.

 

They fall asleep like that.

 

 

Brad wakes before Nate — and they’re definitely cuddling now. It’s undignified and unsettling, and the thought of what they’ve done hits Brad low in his gut. That wasn’t just sex, however good it had been — that was emotion and involvement and things that Brad had sworn he wouldn’t do again after reading Julie’s explanations, in her sloped handwriting, what had changed, and that she was with Steve now, that she’d given the ring to his mother.

 

He extracts himself, carefully but quickly. The motto says swift, silent and deadly for a reason. Brad figures two out of three isn’t so bad for an escape.

 

He leaves.

 

 

The next few days are a flurry of activity. The days before deployment always are, and before Brad’s fully realized it, he’s back in Iraq. At least this time there’s an actual base of operations and he isn’t asked to sit in an open Humvee for days at a time, wearing adult diapers and sweating into his MOPP suit.

 

Deployment is almost welcome. The distance certainly is.

 

 

Nate emails him. It isn’t about any of the things that Brad figures Nate might want to talk about, but then, Nate’s been exceeding or flat-out evading Brad’s expectations so far. It leaves him a little wrong-footed, but Nate’s been doing everything right. He isn’t pushing, he’s just letting Brad be. He can’t say he doesn’t appreciate that.

 

The email’s about Whiskey Tango, Nate telling them they got an offer to go on Warped Tour. It’s pretty amazing, it’s a great chance, yadda, yadda. Brad doesn’t even have to read between the lines to figure out that Nate’s both pleased and uncertain about this — pleased because it apparently really is amazing and the rest of the band is over the moon, uncertain because Nate figured he’d like to go into politics at some point, maybe, and Warped Tour won’t really look good on his CV.

 

Brad could write back about how that kind of consideration reveals Nate’s pussy, blue blood nature. Grunts sure as hell don’t have to worry about this kind of thing, but then there was never any question that Nate would have been an officer, if he’d joined the Marines at all. Instead, he finds himself writing that Nate should decide what he wants more: a possible career in politics or the band.

 

He thinks, but doesn’t write, that if anyone managed to combine the two, it would be Nate Fick.

 

 

Iraq hasn’t changed much since Brad’s last stay. That realization is kind of depressing: They meant to liberate these people, to make their lives better. That was, allegedly, the whole point of the invasion. Instead, three years later, things haven’t really changed much at all, and it’s fucking with Brad’s mind.

 

He wouldn’t go so far as to say that he has a crisis of faith in the Corps or the US of fucking A, but he isn’t happy, either. More than once, he finds himself wishing he could talk it over with Nate, get his opinion on this whole mess. He writes carefully worded emails instead and Nate seems to read between the lines well enough, but it isn’t the same.

 

Brad never used to want anything from anyone, not since Julie.

 

 

Mail call brings nothing special for Brad, but one Lance Corporal gets a padded envelope from one of his buddies. Nothing Brad would pay attention to, usually, but he hears the word Warped and listens in despite himself. As it turns out, his instincts were spot-on: Apparently the envelope contains a few CDs, demo tapes picked up while Warped Tour is going on, and one of the band’s got a former marine in it.

 

“How fucking badass is that?” Spencer is eying the cover speculatively. “Get out of the Corps, join a band and get fuckin’ famous. Sweet.”

 

“Get some,” another marine agrees, and Brad wants to go over there, wants to take the tape and listen in, just to hear Nate’s voice again.

 

Jesus fucking Christ, how did that happen?

 

 

Apparently, Nate decided the band was worth giving up his potential future career in politics for.

 

Apparently, Brad’s a lot gayer than he thought he was, and he’s not even talking about taking it up the ass, because that’s old news at this point.

 

Brad hangs around that evening when normally he would have found something else to occupy him, but they’re playing the demo tapes, one after the other. He spends the entire time that Nate’s singing imagining his face. Nate singing and Nate fucking him blur together in his mind — both carry the same focused expression.

 

It’s a good thing that telepathy is a myth and that Brad’s schooled his features into neutrality. He’d never live it down if any of the men he serves with learned about the things Gunnery Sergeant Colbert thinks about. It’s a fucking disgrace, is what it is.

 

Two songs into the next CD, he leaves to find a quiet spot for a combat jack.

 

 

Brad spends half a year in Iraq — half a fucking year in which he and Nate exchange frequent if irregular emails. Never once does Nate mention anyone else, but Brad’s got no illusions about the way things work.

 

He and Nate had sex, nothing more and nothing less (the image of Nate over him, eyes wide open, comes unasked). Brad’s the one who has his emotions all fucked up and he needs to square that away, but in the six months, the urge to turn around and make a sarcastic comment meant for Nate’s ears only doesn’t abate, no matter how many times he reminds himself that Nate is nowhere near Iraq and how that’s a damned good thing.

 

Whiskey Tango does Warped and if people aren’t throwing themselves at Nate, who is gorgeous and intelligent and pretty fucking amazing, not that Brad’s ever going to admit that out loud, then Brad might lose what little faith he has in humanity and the taste of civilians everywhere. So if Brad and Nate had sex and Brad isn’t around to have sex with Nate, it only makes sense that Nate would find someone else to have sex with.

 

The thought churns, sits heavily in his stomach, but Brad’s felt worse. Nate never made any promises and Brad never asked for anything — not that promises are worth very much at all when Brad’s deployed, he’s learned that much. (Promises don’t get much more serious than a ring on one hand.)

 

Brad jerks off to the memory of Nate’s mouth around his cock and doesn’t let himself dwell on anything else — doesn’t imagine what it would be like to come home to Nate, doesn’t let himself imagine what it would be like if Nate met his family, to teach Nate how to surf, where they’d go on holidays together. He’s done all those things with Julie and see where that got him.

 

Brad should have just stuck to whores. He wouldn’t be in this mess if he had, and he has no one to blame but himself.

 

 

Back in the US, Brad goes through the motions: he calls his mother, his sisters, Poke, Ray. He surfs. He washes his uniform. He reports for duty. He rides his bike with no goal in mind and tells himself that it isn’t running away when he has nothing to run from, when he’s circling back.

 

There’s an article in the Rolling Stone that Ray sends him. It’s about Whiskey Tango at Warped — apparently they impressed this reporter, Evan Wright, enough that he wrote a piece on them. It’s full with Nate’s idealism, how he wants to change the world and decided politics might not be the best way to reach people, not in this current time, how they don’t all have an agenda — Ray just wants to play some music — but they’ve come together to go somewhere.

 

It’s fucking disgusting; Brad would call it moto bullshit except he can actually believe that Nate means it. Coming from Nate, Brad can stomach it. It doesn’t change any of the feelings that he’s been having — feelings, like he’s a fucking high school girl weeks before prom, he’s appalled at himself.

 

He can’t outrun this and it doesn’t seem to be going away.

 

 

Brad wonders how long he’s been in love with Nate and fooling himself to think it was only sex. He’s almost afraid of the answer, so he doesn’t look too closely at his past behavior, doesn’t analyze his emotions. Introspective fucking sucks a hairy asshole, in Ray Person’s words.

 

 

He hears from Ray that they got offered a record deal. They’re all just weeks away from graduation and they got offered a record deal and life is fucking amazing and Ray is oh-so-glad he got out of the corps when he did, Brad gets it.

 

It’s good enough an excuse to call Nate. They might not have rekindled their, whatever it had been, when Brad returned, but they’ve been friendly, haven’t they? It’s good enough an excuse.

 

 

Nate sounds tired, stressed, but also genuinely happy to hear from Brad, which settles something inside of him. He seriously really needs to stop being such a grade-A homosexual and get his emotions under control; he can barely even respect himself anymore.

 

Nate’s happy about the record deal, but busy studying for his exams. “I just kind of want to take a break between the last exam and graduation. We’ll probably start recording right after, so there’s only a limited window of opportunity. Haven’t figured out what to do yet,” he confides in Brad.

 

The words come out before Brad’s managed to check himself: “I’ll teach you to surf.”

 

Nate’s silent for a heartbeat or two too long, and Brad has to remind himself to keep his shoulders down, to unclench his jaw. This isn’t combat, even if it feels like it.

 

“That sounds really good.” Nate sounds— wistful? “I’d like that.”

 

They settle the details quickly. When Brad’s about to hang up, Nate speaks again. “Brad.” His voice is quiet, an odd note in it that Brad can’t place. He waits. “I’m looking forward to it,” Nate finally says, and Brad isn’t sure whether that’s what Nate meant to say, but he finds himself smiling. “Yeah.”

 

He hangs up.

 

 

Nate shows up at Brad’s doorstep on a Wednesday, a little later than they agreed. There’s a beat-up Volvo on the curb and a duffel sitting by his feet; he’s wearing sunglasses and he’s far too pale.

 

Brad wants to lean down and kiss him. Instead, he takes a step back, nodding his chin towards the inside of his apartment. “Get in.”

 

Nate does, brushing past Brad close enough that Brad sucks in a surprised breath of air. It doesn’t help with the desire to kiss Nate, but he closes the door instead and gestures towards the living room. Nate already knows where the couch is, after all.

 

“I might have let slip in a moment of weakness that you were coming and now some of the outstanding gentlemen I work with have requested our presence at a BBQ tomorrow evening. Please tell me one grunt at a time is your limit and we can’t make it.” He doesn’t mean it, mostly. It’s actually Poke who’s organizing the BBQ, though it is true that Brad let slide that Nate (”the guy from Person’s band”) was coming by, that Brad was teaching him to surf. There’s nothing wrong with teaching someone with an Ivy League degree a valuable life skill such as surfing. Brad should get a medal for his humanitarian efforts.

 

All joking aside, he wouldn’t actually mind if Nate wanted to go; he thinks Nate would get along well with Poke. Brad’s never brought anyone to any event of the knitting club before, and it wouldn’t be seen as a date now, wouldn’t be one, even if Brad almost wants it to be.

 

“If you want a ready-made excuse, Colbert, you’ll have to come up with something better. No using me to get out of your social obligations, I’d love to go.” Nate’s not grinning, but there’s an amused slant to his mouth, the sentiment reflected in his eyes. Brad shrugs and gets them two beers.

 

They settle on the balcony and catch up. Nate tells about Warped Tour, how amazing it was; the atmosphere of it. Brad finds himself wishing he could have been there.

 

 

It’s just two friends hanging out, no hint of anything that’s happened between them before Brad went back to Iraq and nothing, Brad is reasonably sure, to betray that he’s head-over-fucking-heels, soap-operas-have-nothing-on-Brad-Colbert in love with the guy.

 

It’s just two friends hanging out, until it’s not.

 

Nothing happens until it’s dark outside and they’ve devoured two pizzas and emptied half of the beers Brad put in his fridge (not enough to impair him in the morning, but enough that he feels it), and they’re about to go to bed. One moment they’re all proper, the next they’re tearing at their clothing and their mouths are clashing together almost painfully, too violent to be described as a kiss. Brad has no idea who moved first. So much for superior situational awareness.

 

“Do you have any idea—” Nate starts and then stops in favor of nipping at Brad’s jaw, his neck.

 

They stumble into the bedroom, pulling and tearing at clothes — blindly, because they can’t seem to stop kissing each other. Brad feels the frame of the bed at the back of his knees and grabs Nate, push-pulls him along in a controlled fall that ends with both of them diagonally across the bed, inches apart. Nate’s laughing, eyes lit up. Brad takes a moment just to look, to categorize the changes since he’s last seen Nate like this: The most notable is a tattoo, slanted font following the lines of Nate’s collarbone. It’s Latin and undoubtedly something suitably intellectual, and Brad shifts until he can press his lips against Nate’s skin and trace it with his tongue.

 

If Nate meant to translate, it only comes out as a soft moan when Brad reaches down, wrapping his fingers around Nate’s cock. They don’t speak anymore after that.

 

 

Brad wakes up in the morning with Nate’s head pillowed on his chest and their legs tangled together. For a moment, he allows himself to enjoy it, to imagine what it would be like to have this every morning. It’s what he wanted with Julie. He thought he’d left all that behind, but apparently not. In the early morning, barely a hint of light, it doesn’t seem so daunting; he can let himself believe that a month, a year in the future, he will still get to have this.

 

He won’t, of course. He’s still a marine, and Nate has his band and will find someone who can give him all of the things that Brad can’t and that’ll be the end to their arrangement. He’ll take what he can get until then.

 

He also really needs to go to work. Admire nothing, comes to mind unbidden. Nate’s arm tightens over his chest when Brad tries to extract himself, and Nate makes a noise, sleepy yet clear in its denial.

 

“I have to go to work.” Brad is gratified that his voice comes out completely even, dry.

 

Nate opens his eyes, peering at Brad. There’s something searching in his gaze, and Brad is reminded again of the fact that out of all of the students in the group that first night in the pub, Nate was the only one who assessed him as much as he assessed them. He looks back at Nate now, unmoving.

 

Brad has no idea what Nate’s seen or believes to have seen in his face (his poker face is fucking impressive), but Nate nods once, sharply, and rolls onto his back, taking his weight off of Brad. Brad misses it almost immediately. He wants to follow Nate’s motion, settle on top of Nate and kiss him, fuck him slow and lazy. He wants to hold Nate. He’s so fucking whipped.

 

“We’ll talk once you’re back,” Nate mumbles, eyes closed again already. Brad is glad for it, because those words never mean anything good. Nate’s in his bed, though, in his home, because Brad invited him. He’ll have to face the music after work; he can’t very well not go home just because he’d rather not hear what Nate has to say.

 

 

Brad’s been wavering all day between expecting Nate to tell him that it’s been nice, but thank you and goodbye (it won’t be as bad as Julie, he tells himself, because at least he never expected Nate to stay with him forever, he just wants it) and irrational hope that it’s something else.

 

Nate’s cooking, barefoot in Brad’s apartment. It’s so domestic, in such incongruity with Brad’s worst case scenarios that he freezes in the doorway to the kitchen for a moment. Nate turns, smiling, though his expression turns thoughtful when he catches the end of Brad’s surprise, before he can control his own expression.

 

For a moment, they stare at each other. It should be hilarious. “Hey,” Nate finally says, and he’s smiling again. His eyes are crinkling at the corners. Brad doesn’t know what to do with that. Either Nate is a fucking sadist looking forward to breaking Brad’s fucking heart — though he can’t know that, can he, Brad’s never given any indication that this is more than sex for him, or at least he hasn’t been obvious about it — or that’s not what’s going to happen here.

 

Offense is the best defense. “You wanted to talk?”

 

Nate inclines his head toward the table; Brad sits down. Jesus Christ, he’s letting someone boss him around in the confines of his own home. Nate settles in the chair opposite Brad, his arms on the table. Brad finds himself mirroring his position.

 

“What are we doing?” It doesn’t sound like Nate is about to tell Brad to go to hell.

 

“I would have thought that was obvious.” Brad isn’t going to make this any harder than it needs to be, but he isn’t going to do all the work for Nate, either. If Nate doesn’t want this anymore (if he doesn’t want Brad), he’ll have to come out and say it.

 

He doesn’t particularly want to talk about any of this, though, and so he doesn’t ask what the fuck is going on when Nate reaches out, closing his fingers around Brad’s wrist and pulling his hand towards the middle of the table, though he raises an eyebrow that pretty much asks the question for him.

 

Nate intertwines their fingers. They’re sitting at Brad’s kitchen table, holding hands like fucking schoolgirls, and in keeping with the image, Brad’s heart skips a beat. He looks down at their hands. Nate rubs his thumb over Brad’s wrist.

 

Brad is seriously missing something here.

 

“Is this okay?” Nate finally asks into the silence. Brad is still staring at their hands, but he looks up now. There’s something soft in Nate’s gaze. He can’t tell whether it’s insecurity or something else entirely. It looks like affection or maybe more, the way Brad thinks he used to look at Julie, and he knows he shouldn’t trust it, but he wants to. He’s already in love with Nate; it can’t really get any worse than that.

 

Brad swallows. “Yeah.” His voice comes out rough, giving too much away, but he holds Nate’s gaze and Nate fucking beams, squeezing Brad’s hand once and then not letting go. Like he wasn’t only making a point but honestly wants to do this — this meaning holding Brad’s hand hostage, apparently, but he figures it’s safe to assume that it’s not only that.

 

Nate gets up, crosses the distance to where Brad’s sitting, all without letting go of Brad’s hand, and leans down to kiss him. It’s a good kiss — almost chaste, admittedly, but sure of its welcome. Brad figures he could get used to this.

 

Nate draws back, settling against the edge of the table and standing between Brad’s legs. He still hasn’t let go. “Why now?” Nate isn’t the kind of person to do something like this without a reason. It’s a declaration all right, and Brad got the message, but that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t like to know more.

 

Nate’s expression turns almost sheepish, embarrassed. “Ray told me about you. Well, he told all of us about you, really. He also mentioned your ex and, well, I didn’t want to scare you away.” He winces, like he knows that that’s an affront to Brad’s warrior spirit, really fucking gay and very definitely worthy of scorn.

 

It’s also, if Brad’s being honest with himself, frighteningly accurate. Instead of saying something scathing about how much of a girl Nate is, he turns their hands — his turn to press a thumb to Nate’s wrist, steady pressure. Ray’s role, however, he can’t let go as easily.

 

“Person is a fucking zit-faced, goat-fucking, sister-locking busybody and you shouldn’t believe a word of what he says. I cannot believe you chose to establish your ROE based on hearsay from Ray fucking Person.”

 

Nate’s eyes crinkle at the corners again. Brad supposes at this point it might be likely that Nate knows when Brad’s being full of shit. “It worked, didn’t it?” Nate’s saying, grinning at Brad. “I got you. Mission accomplished.”

 

Brad groans. “Please stop talking so I will not have to waste my time mocking you for being not only really gay but also, apparently, a huge girl.”

 

Of course, Nate can’t let it go just yet, turning serious far too quickly. Maybe some things do need to be spelled out, but Brad would rather spell them in kisses and touches and use Nate’s skin as his canvas, rather than talk. “Brad, I’m not— it won’t get any easier. There’s DADT and we signed the record deal. I don’t think we’ll become famous overnight, but the possibility exists, and I’m not going to shy away from the spotlight.”

 

Brad shrugs, pulling at Nate’s wrist until Nate is sprawled in his lap. He licks his way into Nate’s mouth, this kiss considerably less chaste than the one before, but no less of a statement. “We’ll figure it out.”

 

So long as he knows that Nate wants this, Brad can deal.

 

 

They eat chicken and slightly burnt potatoes, because Nate Fick is many things, but a talented cook is not amongst them. Tomorrow, Brad will drag Nate to the beach and they’ll spend all day in the water and Brad will watch Nate’s skin turn pink and use it as an excuse to put his hands all over Nate’s back. They’ll surf and in the evening, they’ll go to the BBQ and no one will assume that it’s a date, but they’ll know better.

 

Brad has no illusions that Nate’s right, that it won’t be easy and it won’t get any easier than it is now. He might get deployed again. Nate might hit it big and find he’s sick of a relationship that he always has to hide. He might run into someone he likes better than Brad.

 

For now, though, they have this. For now, Brad knows Nate wants this; they’re on the same page.