"... and it's for this reason I'm here tonight. I strongly believe that something needs to be done; must be done. Thank you for your attention. Are there any questions?"
"Yes. Mr Fick, what do you think..."
It's almost 10 p.m. when Nate Fick finally leaves the now deserted Congress Hall. The temperature has dropped several degrees and the air smells of snow. His breath comes out in small puffs as he walks quickly to his car. It's an hour drive to Boston, more likely two due to the weather conditions, but it's better than spending the night in one of those anonymous hotel rooms.
The conference has gone well, all things considered. The speech had been brief, incisive, and when the Q&A session had started, Nate had gone on autopilot. And, most importantly, he no longer had to deal with personal questions.
His mother calls as soon as he starts the engine.
"Hi Nate, it's me. Bad time?"
"Hi, Mom. No, it's over, I'm leaving now."
He can imagine his mother struggling to hide her concern.
"This late?" She can't help but say. "Anyway, I just wanted to know how the conference went."
It's not just the conference on her mind. He knows; she knows.
"Good, as usual. I'm getting to be a pro at this." His attempt at a joke isn't very convincing after all. Nate is tired.
Here we go.
"I... your father and I just want you to know that if you change your mind at the last minute, it's okay for us. Really, you can show up without even calling-"
"I'll be ok, Mom."
"No you won't! It can't be alright for you to spend Christmas alone after..."
She's on the verge of tears and Nate can't handle it. Not now.
"We've already discussed this. I have to leave for Chicago on the 26th, I still have a lot of paper work to go through, I have a meeting on the 24th that will most likely last until very late and then there's the staff Christmas party that I can't miss. And I won't be alone on Christmas Day. I have friends to babysit me..."
"No rest for the wicked," she tries to humor him.
"It's the way politics works."
"Okay. I understand. I love you Nate. Just remember-"
"Yes, Mom, I'll call you tomorrow."
They hang up and Nate rests his head against the seat. They've become pretty good at avoiding the subject, he and his mother. They both know why he's not going home for Christmas but they still pretend there're other reasons.
When he finally parks the car in front of his house, it's half past one. He's so fucking tired he could sleep there, in the car, in the middle of a snowstorm.
The times when he could be awake and alert 48 hours in a row – with a little help from Ripped Fuel and caffeine – seem so far away that sometimes he wonders if it wasn't just a dream. Afghanistan; Iraq; the missions, his men... If it weren't for Mike Wynn's perseverance in keeping alive the contacts and Ray Person's personal mission to annoy the shit out of him, he'd probably begin to think that all those people and places only ever existed in his imagination.
Another symptom of the PTSD, probably.
The mailbox is full of letters, documents, leaflets, a postcard from his sister, innocently asking if he's going home for Christmas, - Mission "bring Nate back for Christmas" involves the whole family, apparently – more letters and a square envelope wrapped in horrible pink Christmas paper printed with female Santas dressed in red and white bikinis. There's no return address but it doesn't take a genius to recognize the hand of Ray Person. Nate shakes his head and the corner of his mouth lifts in a half smile.
It turns out to be a collection of famous Christmas songs performed by Michael Buble. Nate is appalled; Ray's taste in music has gone downhill since the times he used to send Metallica or Rob Zombie's CD's.
Nate considers trashing it immediately but then he decides to play it anyway while he eats. This way he can be honest when he tells Ray that he listened to it and didn't like it.
He's preparing a peanut butter and jelly sandwich when his cell phone rings. It's not unusual for staff members to call him at strange hours but two in the morning is definitively a bit too late. He decides it must be his mother looking for assurance that her baby got home safe and sound.
The number on the display, though, is unfamiliar.
"Nate Fick," he answers trying to sound professional.
"Of course you're Nate Fick. Where the fuck were you, by the way?"
That voice... Nate swallows hard.
"In the flesh, sir." Nate can almost see the grin through the phone.
Two years. Two fucking years it took Brad to call him.
"Don't call me sir. I'm not an officer anymore." There's a perverse sense of revenge in saying this to a man who has devoted his life to the Marine Corps.
"All this time and that's the only thing you have to say to me?"
No, of course not. There are others things Nate wants to say, only they're locked somewhere inside and refuse to come out.
"Where are you?" Nate asks, harsher that he intended.
"I'm freezing my ass off in a smelly, fleabag motel ironically called The Hot Spot."
Nate is amazed by the Brit's bad taste in naming places, but then he remembers they also have a Hot Spot Motel in Boston.
"Are you here? In Boston?"
"Of course I am. Has working for Democrats definitively fried your brain?"
"How-" There are so many questions Nate wants to ask; how did Brad get his number, how does he know Nate is working for a Democrat's campaign, why hasn't Brad called him in two fucking years? But they all seem like stupid questions at the moment
"Can I come over?" If Brad Colbert were one for begging, Nate would say he's doing it now. But since Brad doesn't beg, he's most likely tricking Nate into saying yes.
"Do you know where I live?"
"If I knew, I'd already be there. I had to blackmail Ray for your cell number but he was adamant about not giving me your address. He says he likes his balls too much. You're not even in the fucking phone book. Can I come over, then?"
"I said no. It's better this way, trust me. Good night, Brad."
Nate closes his cell with a shaking hand and switches it off. He feels like a fucking grouch but he's simply not ready for this. All the shit he has worked tenaciously to bury the last two years is threatening to come back and hit him twice as hard.
Brad belongs to the past. Nate is focused on the future.
He opens a beer. Nate rarely drinks but he needs alcohol now so he swallows it up in a single, breathless gulp – a benefit of his Recon training.
When his home phone rings, Nate stares at it for at least forty-five seconds before picking it up.
"How the fuck did you find this number?"
"I have friends," Brad says curtly. "Is it because I didn't call you?"
It is. This and many other reasons, one of which is that Nate has spent an entire year trying to figure out who he really was, six months trying to re-build himself with a brand new life and other six to fuck –almost - everything up all over again.
Nate snorts. "No. I used to be in the Corps, remember? I know how things go with external communication."
It's a lie and they both know it. Brad had actually been on missions most of the time, and that was fine with Nate. It was when Nate accidentally found out that Brad had been in L.A. for three weeks and had hung out with Ray and Poke, but couldn't find a moment to pick up the fucking phone and say hello to Nate, that he'd started to ask himself questions.
"Yeah, it was pretty fucked up most of the time. I thought about calling you but then I didn't know what to say. I wasn't even sure you wanted to talk to me."
Well, you could have called to find out, Nate thinks.
"Brad, it's ok, really. This has nothing to do with you. Just... two years is a long time, things change, people change." Christ! He's talking like a fucking cheap philosopher.
"You're listening to my CD."
Nate needs a moment to understand what Brad's talking about. He forgot about the damn Michael Buble.
"Your CD? I thought it was Ray's. Besides, you said you don't know my address."
"I asked Ray to send it to you."
Nate thinks about the pink Christmas package with bikini Santas and has no problem believing Brad. He tries not to chuckle.
"Your taste in music sucks."
"That hurts, sir."
It's like the old times. Nate feels his chest tightening.
"I have to go, Brad, seriously. I have an early call tomorrow."
"Tomorrow is Saturday."
"Yeah, no rest for the wicked politicians."
"Nate, you can't-"
Nate hangs up before Brad says anything that can make him change his mind. This time, he also disconnects his home phone. He hopes Brad doesn't have the number for his work Blackberry.
Nate can't sleep, of course. He lies wide awake in his bed listening to the hideous Michael Buble songs about people coming home for Christmas, thinking of all the things that have gone wrong, the ones gone right – those only involve work - and jerks off thinking of Brad and all the times they did this together in Iraq. It's nowhere near as good. The way Brad had touched him had made him see stars, literally and figuratively. In a way, Brad has damaged him permanently. Once you have a taste of what is really right for you, everything else tastes bitter or is, at best, flavorless.
Brad calls him again the following day, on Nate's personal cell phone. Nate has just finished a four-hour meeting and simply answers without looking at the display.
"Is it the divorce?"
Nate stops dead in his tracks.
He has the presence of mind to signal his co-workers to go on without him, and then sits on a bench so he can blame the chilled marble for the cold he's feeling now.
"Is the divorce what has you so pissed off?"
"How do you know about the divorce?"
"I Googled you."
Brad had Googled him. Well, at least Brad had the guts to ask him about the issue everybody else is trying diplomatically to avoid. Anyway, he's by no means going to discuss his divorce with Brad.
"Brad, I keep telling you: it's complicated. Too many things have happened in the past two years, you can't simply jump out of nowhere pretending this hiatus never happened."
There's a long silence on the other side. Nate wonders if Brad is still there.
"I'm not pretending anything, Nate. I just asked if I could come and visit you. Maybe have a beer, like friends usually do."
"Suddenly, in the middle of the night? Without even checking to see if I was in town? If I had time to see you? If I wanted to see you? C'mon Brad, you're smarter than this."
"You know me; I'm a man of action."
"I could have spared you the trip."
"And do you think would have stopped me?"
"I have to go now, there are people waiting for me. Just... come back to the present; you can't live in the past."
Nate sits on the cold bench until he can't feel his lower limbs anymore. The divorce has been such a messy thing. Messy and painful, for both his wife and him. It's still a raw, sore wound. It also nearly fucked up the only thing that gave him purpose; his job.
He simply couldn't go on like that. It was worse than cheating; staying with somebody and wishing with all your heart and soul you were with somebody else. He can't tell Brad, of course. He couldn't have even if he'd wanted to since he had no clue where Brad was. No, okay, this isn't true, because he could have asked Ray, or Mike, or Poke.
Just what would he have said? Hey, Brad, you know what? I got married because I thought I could forget about you, but marriage doesn't suit me after all, so why don't you drop what you're doing and come with me?
He doesn't understand why people are throwing him curious glances until he realizes he's sitting alone and laughing quietly out loud.
Brad calls again that night.
"Tell me just this one thing, Nate, and then I swear I won't call you anymore. Would it be different if I'd called you during the last two years?"
"No." It's a lie, of course. A big, fat lie but it comes out so convincing that Nate almost believes it himself.
"Okay. I fly out at eight p.m. It's been good to talk to you. Take care."
The sting behind his eyes annoys the shit out of him, but Nate Fick knows how to deal with pain, so he decides to wear himself out with an eight mile run in the freezing cold of the night.
When he steps onto the porch three hours later, with armful of shopping bags - one of which contains a scandalously expensive bottle of Wild Turkey - it's snowing again.
"I forgot to say Merry Christmas."
It's from sheer will alone that Nate doesn't let the bags fall.
"Brad, what the fuck!"
And here he is, tall and grinning, with a red nose and eyes watering from the cold.
"I thought you had a flight at eight."
Brad shrugs. "I do, eventually. Open ticket for a month. I didn't say it was for today."
"You also said you wouldn't contact me anymore."
"Semantics, sir. I said I wouldn't call you."
"I thought you didn't know where I live." Nate is horrified by the edge of desperation in his own voice but he can't help it.
"A venial lie."
Brad shrugs. "Ray. Mike. Tony. Your sister. Apparently other people are more than willing to give us a chance."
"Us?" Nate's laugh is sour.
"Ok, listen up, I have to ask you to shut up for a moment and let me explain." Brad lifts the bags from Nate's arms and puts them on the ground.
Nate feels his knees go weak. It's the run, he thinks, the run and the cold. And Brad.
"If you think I haven't thought about you in the last two years you're wrong. Actually, there hasn't been a single day I haven't thought about you. The only reason I didn't call was that I was confused. And scared. I'm a man of firm beliefs. Some of them, you fucked up pretty badly. It took me a while to be able to say, screw the Corps, screw everyone and everything; I want you in my life. When I finally gathered the courage to call you, I got the news that you were engaged and a few steps away from the fucking altar. So I retreated to figuratively lick my wounds in the only way I knew: I threw myself body and soul into my career."
"And... and what made you change your mind again? Why are you here, Brad?"
Brad looks at him as if he's a dim child. "I told you, I read about your divorce on the net, I asked for leave as soon as I could and took the first available flight. That's how it's been for me. What about you."
Now Nate hates Brad a little because, in less than five minutes, he's shattered all of the excuses Nate's been making all this time.
"I was a coward," he says simply. And it's true. It's always been the fear of rejection that prevented him from taking the first step. Nothing else.
"No, don't say that." Brad comes closer and touches Nate's face. Brad's hand is cold and Nate covers it with his own gloved one. "You're not a coward, you never have been."
"I was a coward because I couldn't admit that I was scared, so I blamed you for everything."
"You're dwelling on the past. Aren't you the one that keeps telling me not to live in the past?" Brad brushes Nate's cheek with his thumb.
"Yes. But the future scares the shit out of me even more, right now."
"Yeah, me too. So let's live in the present, okay?"
Nate nods. He can't stop staring at Brad; he fears that if he closes his eyes, Brad will disappear.
"I didn't know a Senator's Chief of Staff was allowed to go around wearing a green beanie with a pom-pom. You look terribly cute. Beside, you still do that thing with your lips when you're embarrassed. I think I have to kiss you right now."
Brad brushes the corner of Nate's mouth with his lips; just a ghost of a kiss but it's all Nate needs. He cups Brad's face with both his hands and kisses him; a full-mouthed, deep, wet kiss. Brad's nose is cold against his cheek and Nate wonders idly how long Brad has waited for him in the cold.
"We'd better go inside," Brad whispers between kisses on Nate's lips, cheeks, brow, eyes. "I don't want to be the reason for a political scandal."
"I work for a Democrat, remember?"
"Yes, how could I forget? A far too young, inexperienced, idealistic Democrat with ambitious dreams of the White House."
"I have faith in Senator Obama."
"He'll never be President."
"Are we going to keep arguing about politics or are we going to do other things inside? I've been freezing my balls off out here for three hours now. My hands are getting numb."
"Okay, but just one more thing ... come here." He drags Brad into the doorway.
"What?" Brad asks, puzzled.
Nate kisses him and then points over their heads.
"Mistletoe. I'm still traditional when it comes to Christmas."
"You put mistletoe on your doorway?" Brad asks, stunned.
"I didn't," Nate admits. "It was already here when I rented the house and I forgot to take it down. It's plastic. See?"
"Maybe it was a sign," Brad grins.
Brad slips his arm under Nate's padded jacket, squeezing him tight, and they stay like this for a few more moments, watching the snow coming down in big, white flakes.