In the mirror they look startlingly similar, despite age and time. The uniform is designed to bring all Marines to act together as one, and in this instance it works all too well. Nate is just a hair shorter than Brad, their white-top cover nearly even in the reflected light. Nate got a haircut for this, making him look impossibly younger even to Brad's knowing eyes.
This isn't the first time they've gone to the same Ball. It's not even the first time they've gone to a Ball together. But it is definitely the first time they've gone with matching silver bands on their fingers, even hidden beneath gloves.
"You ready?" Brad asks, a soft rumble in the silence. They've been quiet tonight, the solemnity of their decision weighing on them both.
"Yeah," Nate says on an exhale, the bright shine of his bars catching in the light when his chest expands and contracts. "Yeah, let's do this." He smiles, and Brad catches a breath of his own.
Brad makes it to the door first, carefully turns the knob and looks stoic in the face of the knowing grin Nate gives him for his chivalry. They're going to the party by themselves, not picking anyone up on the way, and the low hum of the AM oldies music station rattles from the rear speakers of the truck. The road is shiny from afternoon rain, and Nate's hands are resting firm and unshaking on his knees.
Brad puts his gloved hand over Nate's, clasping tight enough to feel the metal band beneath the cloth.
It's tough finding parking, but they expected that. They're a little late, still in time for the speeches but after so many of their fellow Marines have arrived. They walk to the door of the building together, close but not touching, silent even as the bass from the party's sound system penetrates the night. Brad waves at a couple of drunk-ass Marines whooping out their joy into the crisp November sky.
Just before they go inside, Brad glances at Nate sidelong. Nate is resolute, unafraid, but Brad knows that look. He made his home in that look. Darting his gaze from side to side, he takes firm hold of Nate's elbow and prays the broom closet won't be locked.
"Brad, what--" Nate huffs out, not-quite-irritated, but he can't finish his sentence because Brad leans down those pesky few inches and kisses the breath from him.
"Brad," Nate says again, only this time he's just shy of wrecked. Brad raises his hand, straightens the brim of Nate's cover, and runs his thumb along Nate's eyebrow.
"Don't worry about this one," he says, staring into Nate's eyes with resolution of his own. "This one doesn't matter. Don't worry about it."
Nate searches Brad's face, and Brad could watch him forever. He plans to. "Brad, I--you know what it means, I just--"
Brad cups the side of his face, not missing how Nate turns so slightly into the touch. "Don't worry about this one."
Nate's hand comes up to clasp Brad's wrist, glove over glove, gaze not wavering. "Are you sure you want to do this?"
"I have never not wanted to do this," Brad says before Nate can even finish speaking.
Nate's youthful smile creases the bow of his mouth. "Let me finish a sentence for once tonight, Gunny," he admonishes, moving his hand so it rests against Brad's own.
"What's the fun in that?" Brad counters, and dips his head to kiss Nate again. This time, they're on the same page; Brad can feel that the nerves Nate had been working so hard to stifle are quelling.
It's not that he wants to make a statement. Or, it's not only that he wants to make a statement. Brad disapproves of lying on general principle, and especially disapproves of lying to men he holds responsible for ensuring his safety and livelihood. All that political bullshit about unit cohesion was true on one account: it's harder to look a man you must trust with your life in the eye when you can't talk about the terrible family-in-law dinner you went to with your husband last week.
When they part, Nate's eyes are closed, and Brad allows himself a gloating smirk. He did that. He does that. No one gets to do that to Nate but him, and by god Brad is a lucky fuck.
"Let's go to a party," he murmurs, and Nate nods, shaking off the kiss and straightening his tunic. Brad smooths a hand down Nate's buttons, lets his hand stray for a hairsbreadth to Nate's half-hard cock just to watch his nostrils flare and his pupils widen. Nate punches him in the arm a second later and says, "Stop groping me. It's undignified."
"I just kissed you senseless in a broom closet," Brad points out. "What makes you think you have any dignity left?"
"I'll dignify you later," Nate says nonsensically, but with a hot look on his face that says he means it. "Let's go celebrate our birthday."
Nate fumbles open the door and they nearly spill out of the closet and onto the ground. A PFC and a corporal who look too young to be as drunk as they so clearly are have incredibly surprised looks on their faces and are (poorly) trying to hide their reactions.
"Children," Brad acknowledges with a Gunny stare. He does a little Picard maneuver and steadies Nate with a hand. When Nate gives him one of the many, many exasperated looks Brad has earned over the years, Brad just smiles sweetly and takes his hand. "After you, Mr. Fick-Colbert."
Nate snorts, another look on his face. "You know perfectly well it was Colbert-Fick, Gunnery Sergeant. Come on, I want to show off the rings to Bryan and see how many curse words he can fit into one sentence again."
Brad looks at him approvingly as they move towards the music. "Happy fucking birthday to me. Hoorah."