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Everything Looks Different After the War

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November 2012. Afghanistan.

They set down on the airfield at Kabul International Airport. Nate breathes in the rich, hot air. It doesn't feel alien any more. This is his third trip to Afghanistan and should be the easiest as well. He tells himself to stay alert, this is still a difficult country, hostile and foreign in so many ways, he shouldn't let himself get too comfortable just because he feels more like he knows what he's doing here this time.

His two researchers traipse after him as he crosses the tarmac towards customs. Grant and Sophie are fantastic colleagues, they've both got experience in developing countries, but neither of them have been here before. The idea is to get them set up, introduce them to all Nate's contacts, and then let them get on with their jobs. Nate was happy to come, to feel connected to the work his team is doing on the ground, to make sure they're safe and know what they're doing. He feels responsible and protective of them in a completely different way to when he led his men here more than 10 years earlier. He looks at the two of them, they're both looking a little ill right now - the descent into Kabul's airport is notoriously difficult - and judging by the steep incline at which they descended Nate would say this one was no different. He's grateful suddenly for his years rattling around in small military carriers and helicopters that meant he survived this trip relatively unruffled. For a second Nate lets his worries about how Sophie and Grant will cope with the ups and downs of Affa life overtake him again, and then he tells himself he doesn't have to leave them here if he doesn't think they can manage without him. He knows that he's doing their capabilities a disservice though, worrying like this.

He hands his passport to the Immigration Official and is barely asked any questions before it's stamped quickly and returned. Nate's carrying his luggage but they go to collect Grant and Sophie's bags – fighting through the crowds of Afghan and Pakistani families there. The airport is chaos and Nate's glad to slip into a taxi, leaving Sophie to argue over fares with the driver. They all learnt some basic Pashtu before coming but Sophie picked it up the best and she's confident if a little stilted as she haggles. Nate leans his head back, tries to take in something of the city as they get nearer the city-proper and start making their way through the swarming market-stalls that line the roads. He'll be relieved to meet up with Hafiz at the hotel. Nate met him first when he was here to lecture in 2007 and he was more than happy to engage his services as their interpreter for this visit.

He thinks about his friend as they drive. Nate realizes he's missed him. Hafiz comes from a fairly wealthy Kabul family, they'd prospered under the Soviets, running carpet factories in three Kabul districts. At first they had kept their heads down when the Taliban came to power but Hafiz thinks that their wealth started to be resented as things got tougher. Hafiz has told Nate in the past about how his father was saving to send Hafiz away to school in England so he could use his education to expand the business. It never happened. Instead, the Taliban bombed his family home in 2003 for alleged collaboration with the Americans and the of course morality infractions. Hafiz, the youngest child, had been at school. He was the only survivor. Three days later, explosions also occurred at the family's factories after hours. Hafiz was taken in by his aunt's family and instead of going to England for school he used his already good English to get interpreting work and began translating for the Americans and ISAF forces, hoping it would offer a modicum of protection. When Nate came for a month to run tutorials at Kabul's Counterinsurgency Academy, Hafiz, who also speaks Dari and Urdu, was his military-assigned translator. Hafiz's first son had been born soon after Nate arrived and it turned out you couldn't bring a man cigars and imported-Pampers and hold his new baby for four hours while he smoked and his wife slept without becoming firm friends.

Nate runs through the names of Hafiz's kids in his mind as the cab pulls up to the hotel. He has four now, Hamidullah, Darshan, Rami, and, and… Aziz, Nate thinks. His wife is Rupal. Nate wants to get it right. He's missed his friend; he doesn't want to offend him by forgetting to ask about any of his family.

Hafiz greets him at the hotel with a mammoth hug and four kisses. Nate gets the kids' names right and learns that another is on the way. Hafiz looks like he couldn't be happier and immediately invites Nate, Sophie and Grant to his house. In fact, Hafiz looks put out that they're staying at the Hotel at all. Nate sends the other two to grab a shower and a post-flight nap while he and Hafiz drink vast quantities of ultra-strong coffee on the Hotel veranda. Nate explains the itinerary of their trip while ducking questions about his own failed marriage. The divorce from Claire was four years ago now so it doesn't really hurt to talk about it; but he knows Hafiz doesn't really understand, not so much from a cultural point of view, but just because he's so happy with his own rapidly expanding family. The sympathy that Hafiz offers him just makes Nate feel pointlessly guilty about his relief that it's over.

It's funny (and kind of sad) but relief was one of Nate's primary feelings when he met Claire too. Just the absolutely freeing, heady sensation of being granted a reprieve from his boxed-up, Marine Corps-related pining. She was small and sharp-witted and adamantly pacifistic. She argued him into bed, she argued with him about everything. He felt like he stayed on his toes, ready to fight her at any moment, for an entire year. She was the sweetest distraction he could ever have wished for. People were telling them they squabbled like an old, married couple almost from the beginning and Nate had honestly thought he could do it forever. Claire was instrumental in pulling him back into the world. Nate hopes he gave enough back to her for it to have been worth it for her too. Even now, her friendship means a lot to him – and they still have their dog. It's a kind of family and Nate's at peace with it, but he doesn't want to have to justify it to Hafiz.

At Hafiz's house Rupal serves them tea and little date cakes while Grant sits on the floor and lets toddlers crawl all over him. All the children are beautiful, Nate thinks, Hafiz's swarthy, flat features lend a happy canvas for piercing green eyes and wide smiles. They dominate the conversation asking Nate again and again in English what his name is and where he comes from and then giggling before they can listen to the answers. Hamidullah has clearly been told about his special relationship to Nate and he insists on shaking Nate's hand several times and cheekily asks for cigars. Rupal looks particularly relieved when Nate tells the five year old he's all out of smokes. Nate's glad Sophie and Grant can have this experience of what family life can be here. They head to the South tomorrow and Nate's not sure what things will look like there.

Once the children are sent to bed Hafiz shows Nate the threatening letters he still receives and plays some of the voicemail messages of warning he has on his phone.

"I don't think they're too serious yet," he says, "but I'm still worried. The police need to be stronger to protect us but not all of them are even against the Taliban I don't think. I don't want to leave but maybe one day we'll have to."

Nate knows there's nothing to say in the face of Hafiz's predicament. Too many people in this country are still living with these kinds of fears. Instead he asks if Hafiz is happy to be coming away with them.

"Sure, of course. Don't worry Nate. Rupal and the children will stay with her sister. It's much safer in her village in some ways. We were supposed to visit in the summer but Hamidullah broke his arm." Hafiz gestures his right arm in demonstration. "Besides, I'm delighted not to go. Her sister is, er, how do you say it, a bit of a cow?"

Nate laughs. The perils of staying with a sister-in-law he can understand. Although in his case, he can't blame Cheryl for disliking him, he was never fair to her sister, not really, and he thinks Cheryl probably understood that much better or at least much earlier, than either he or Claire did.

They start out for Helmand early and if it wasn't for the shower Nate would have agreed with Hafiz that it wasn't worth getting a hotel. Good showers are never something to be taken for granted in Nate's opinion. He stays under the hot water jet for a long time, savoring it. Both of the last times he got back from Afghanistan he hadn't felt human again until he'd sat in the shower for a good hour. And that other time, after being in Iraq. Well, that was something else entirely. He remembers standing there, in the small shower of his assigned accommodation, eyes closed, fist pumping. He remembers that it was more like exorcism then resurrection. He doesn't remember it working.

They fly in an ICRC humanitarian carrier to Kandahar and then get on a supply plane going to Camp Bastion, the British camp next to Leatherneck, where they'll be based.

In the Helmand outposts, US marine units are now embedded with the Afghan National Army, training them to take over duties from the ISAF allies when they finally withdraw in a few years. Grant is NSA and Sophie is one of his own research fellows from Georgetown. They want to assess all aspects of the training infrastructure and the progress of the ANA troops and Nate anticipates their findings will inform a lot of policy work going forward in the next couple of years. They've come to Helmand first because it's the most dangerous, he doesn't want his employees here unsupervised. It's not the same down here as other places. In these rural areas insurgents aren't just militants hiding behind the local populace, they're family members bunked down with family members. Hearts and minds never stood a chance here, against blood. Nate plans to work with Grant and Sophie on this portion of the research and then leave them to it in Kabul where the National Defense University and the National Military Academy are both based as well as the French-run Command and General Staff College. It's going to be a lot of work, but Nate hopes it'll be worth it.

In '92 after the Soviets left and the aid dried up Afghanistan was engulfed in Civil War. No one wants that again. Leaving the Afghan Army in the strongest possible position is a big part of that prevention plan. Nate hopes he's going to find good news - even though he knows it's never that simple. He's wary of the thirty green-on-blue attacks there have already been this year, resulting in 45 ISAF guys dead at the hands of their Afghan colleagues. He wants to see firsthand how that's playing out here, if it's going to undermine all the other work being done. Especially in the wake of the letters Hafiz showed him, it feels important, he doesn't want his friend abandoned to such a precarious situation.

The plane lands as smoothly as can be expected, which is to say, not smoothly at all. Grant looks pretty sick again but Sophie is jumping around, straining to see if she can spot any British Helicopters, or rather their pilots (everyone who briefed them felt the need to emphasize that Prince Harry is stationed at Bastion at the moment). Personally if they do run into him, Nate doesn't think Prince Harry would stand a chance. Sophie is completely gorgeous – objectively speaking of course – she's a good 5"8, she keeps her blonde hair short and functional and she lopes along with a sort of boyish charm. She attracted a lot of attention in Kabul, standing out like a sore thumb despite the gradual decline in Chadri-wearing women in the capital. Nate knows she can handle herself with the marines here, but it's probably not going to be an overwhelmingly pleasant experience for her on the base so he's happy to let her enjoy herself while she can.

Camp Leatherneck, being the US Camp, is not home to any royalty and they are whisked quickly away in that direction. They're ushered into General Dieter's headquarters by an aide as soon as they arrive. The man clearly has a lot on his plate what with managing the entire First Marine Expeditionary Force but he greets Nate warmly, addressing him as Captain and referring to his years of service. Nate is mildly impressed by how well he's been briefed. The General dismisses them quickly though and tells Nate to come meet him again in the morning, 0900, for them to discuss what the research is going to entail and what access he'll need. In the meantime they get escorted off to their billet and a tour of the camp. It looks pretty standard to Nate but he can tell from the shock on Sophie and Grant's faces that it's pretty basic. Even Hafiz huffs an, "Ugh soldiers," as they pass the stinking portable toilets.

"Marines," Nate corrects him. "And yes, they even manage to shit more heinously than regular infantry."

There's a collection of large tents set up for civilians to the East end of the camp. There are beds reserved for Nate, Hafiz, and Grant in a tent with 17 other male civilians, mostly journalists, civilian experts and government lower-downs. Sophie has a bunk in a female tent a little closer to the toilets. Nate is fine with the set up he just hates the P.O.G feeling that settles over him. He doesn't think he's going to like being a civilian here. It was bad enough being an officer when it had come to talking to his men. As a civilian it's likely he'll be even less respected than the enemy by the guys here and he's going to need their cooperation to get his work done. They dump their bags and head to the dining facility their guide had pointed out – he'd referred to it as the DFAC – and Nate notes the new lingo. There's going to be a lot to catch up on, a lot of language and protocols that will have moved on in his absence. He tries not to feel too attached to the Corps as he knew it, tries to look for the signs of positive progress.

There's a bit of a queue but they join the end and try not to look too conspicuous. They're just reaching the entrance of the tent after about twenty minutes when Nate hears his name being called from about 20 feet away to his left.

"Nate!"

Nate doesn't need to turn around to know who's calling him. Not only is the voice unmistakable to Nate, deep and sardonic, but very few other voices have made so many emotions coil in his belly the way this one does. So many old feelings stir within Nate as familiar as breathing. Pride, anger, loss, pleasure, desire, all light up within him. It makes him realize that what he thought was well buried was really just lying low, floating beneath the surface, waiting for one syllable from Brad to set them loose again.

How the hell did he not know Brad was here? They've done so much prep for this trip and nothing had even given him the slightest idea that Brad Colbert was likely to be in Afghanistan at all, last Nate had heard was something about jump training. Despite it all though, Nate finds that he's smiling and shaking his head at himself as he turns around. Underneath all the other complicated stuff that still clouds his brain whenever he thinks about his former sergeant, Nate doesn't think they'll ever be a time when he won't, ultimately, be pleased to see Brad.

"Brad," Nate says in greeting as Brad pulls up in front of him. Brad salutes so Nate has no choice but to follow suit. They don't shake hands. Nate doesn't know what that means. Does Brad not want to touch him? He remembers how careful they used to be around each other, aware that every touch meant more than it was supposed to. Nate's kind of glad he doesn't have to find out yet if that's still the case. They're still very much in public and they've never been anything but friends and professionals in this setting.

Nate eventually remembers his colleagues at his shoulder, making up their public.

"Master Sergeant Colbert," Nate says, taking in the extra chevrons, "These are my colleagues, Sophie Denton from Georgetown, Grant Gillespie, NSA and Hafiz Wahid, our interpreter."

"Pleasure," Brad says, reaching out a hand to each of them. Watching them greet each other, Nate has this sudden feeling of confidence - that somehow their safety is more assured now that he'll have Brad to help him look after them. Nate knows about the attacks on the camp just a few months ago, insurgents dressed as US military. This isn't an impenetrable stronghold by any stretch of the imagination.

Nate looks at Brad, he thinks the What are you doing here? question is on both their lips, probably even more from Brad's point of view than Nate's. It doesn't get asked though because the queue behind them is getting impatient waiting for them to enter the tent.

"Hungry?" Nate asks Brad.

"Sure, always." Brad replies and slots in behind Nate as they all traipse into the DFAC.

Nate feels his presence behind him, crowding over him, feels the brush of Brad's arm against his as they push their trays along the canteen bar. Nate can't think what to say to him. He feels a little crazed when what comes to his mind is, you smell the same. Because Brad does, they're close enough that Nate can tell, can't believe he could ever have forgotten. How long has it been? There was never a time when he could have said to Brad, I like the smell of you. He can't really imagine ever feeling comfortable to say something like that to anyone, let alone his former sergeant.

Even with the parameters of normal conversation there's too much to ask Brad about and none of it feels like it's for public consumption. He keeps looking over at Brad, smiling awkwardly and looking down again. Brad looks back at him in sympathy. Eyes bright, looking like he's holding back as much as Nate. The look of understanding that passes between them makes Nate feel suddenly like no time has passed at all - which is ridiculous.

In the end Sophie steps in as they all settle down at a table to eat. "So Brad, what's your job?"

"Special ops. training of ANA with 2nd Battalion mostly. Not just Recon sadly," Brad gives Nate a wry smile.

"Oh great," Sophie says, "I'll save most of my questions then, sounds like you're just the guy we're here to talk to." Nate agrees with her. It sounds like his and Brad's work-lives have conspired to re-align them.

"Give you time to prepare yourself." Sophie adds in a flirty tone. Nate watches Brad flash his wide smile at her and Nate's pretty ashamed of the instinctive glare he sends Sophie's way. From the corner of his eye he sees Brad's smile widen further. Fuck.

Sophie, oblivious, ploughs on, "You and Nate served together then?"

Brad nods and says, "First Recon," just as Nate's saying, "Iraq." They all laugh; Nate feels an edge of hysteria run through him. It's a bit of a high getting to see Brad like this, getting to look at him and he be real, not a rare photo or a half-remembered dream.

"How long's it been since you've seen each other?" That's Grant asking and Nate was just thinking the same thing. Except he knows exactly. It was January 2008, nearly 5 years now.

"Ray's wedding wasn't it Sir?" Brad says, and Nate balks a little at the 'Sir' because it feels a little foreign to him now but nods his head in agreement.

"Early 2008," he informs them, "Nearly five years ago."

Brad doesn't look too different, they're coming up on ten years since OIF and Brad is closer to forty then not but Nate can't really see it. Perhaps he's a little heavier set, perhaps his forehead wrinkles a little more when he frowns in concentration, and there might be a greater sense of authority about him but Nate's not sure how much to trust his memory. The Brad in his mind has always been a little too perfect, his harsh edges softened by Nate's admiration.

Nate eats everything on his plate without registering a thing about what he's eating. He just keeps looking and smiling and agreeing to let Brad show them round properly at some point. Brad tells them he's just back from visiting FOB Sarkari Karez and a couple of others bases, where he's been monitoring the marines who are embedded with Afghan units. He gives Nate a piercing look and Nate knows Brad's been worried about the green-on-blue fire as well. It's marvelous to him that they can still communicate like this. It's making him question everything he's felt and thought in relation to Brad over the last ten years. Like nothing they had has gone away.

They stow their trays and make their way out through the rows of hungry, rowdy marines. Brad has a meeting so they say goodbye and part ways. Nate and the others head back to their racks.

It's early but they're all pretty shattered from the travelling and Nate hunkers down and tries to do some reading. He doesn't really stand a chance at concentrating though. Every exhale leaving his body seems to have the words, "Brad's here," whispered on it. He's not ready to start analyzing his thoughts about it, let alone his feelings. He just tries to accustom himself and his body to this change in events and expectations. He makes a conscious effort to picture Brad in his mind as he is now, not how Nate's been imagining him for the last five years, or nine, really. Brad had seemed pretty unflustered, which Nate would say was to be expected, except that he also remembers Brad at other times.

His brain is flooding with images of Brad, most still from Iraq; Brad tired and annoyed, Brad determined, angry, focused, upset. Brad telling him he trusts him. Brad telling him they can't. Oh god, that moment, just one while they were in-country, where everything un-named and held-back suddenly, irrepressibly found its way to the surface. Brad had come to him after the football game, Wynn had already told Nate about Ray's outburst, concerned for the RTOs welfare but he'd also said, Brad went after him, so Nate wasn't as worried as he would have been.

Brad had come to see Nate straight from Ray, clearly still rattled by the cracks emerging in Ray's coping strategies. He'd closed the door to the small, temporary office behind him and walked straight to Nate, right into his personal space and wrapped himself around Nate, head bowed into his shoulder. Nate hadn't been able to bring himself to question it. He'd brought his own arms up to rub at Brad's waist and back, in comfort only, had whispered, "Is he okay?" And felt Brad's heavy nod on his shoulder bone, the gruff, "Will be," that accompanied it. Eventually, drawn into the curve at the back of Brad's neck, usually hidden by his shirt, Nate pressed his dry lips into Brad's skin. Gently he let himself trace the groove where Brad's dog-tags dug into his neck. They stayed there a long time, Nate's lips barely moving but never still either, Brad's hands gripping tightly to Nate's uniform at his back.

Brad was the only one to acknowledge it verbally. "It's too much Sir." He had said, and just when Nate was starting to let himself wonder did Brad mean them, or the whole fucked-up situation in Iraq, Brad's mouth moved to his neck, kissed once, teeth present too, the tiniest of scrapes, and then said, "We can't."

There had been a minute when they both gripped tighter before drawing apart. But Brad had seemed a little restored as he stepped away, pulled himself up in front of Nate, leaving him with a small flinch of a smile. That was all there was until they got home, until Brad finally came to find him again.

Nate tries to concentrate on remembering how he dealt with Brad into the past, how he got round Iraq harboring the mass of fledgling feelings he ended up powerless to deny, but he can't help the way his mind flicks back to the one afternoon in August when it seemed like all the masks fell away for good. When Brad arrived at Nate's place he'd looked almost pained, and had sounded faintly panicked when he said, "Nate, I leave in three days," as Nate ushered him in the door. Nate had reached for him then and they had kissed in the hallway, full of relief and defiance that this was happening at last, despite the world they both came from.

Nate gets up. He grabs a torch and a jacket. It's dark now but not late and he has to get out for a while. Grant's snoring pretty heavily beside him but Hafiz gives him a wink as he goes past. Nate hopes Sophie's okay in her tent. He thinks to himself maybe he'll wander over that way to check on her.

He heads to the latrines first. He has to stop himself holding his nose and internally berates himself for getting so comfortable in his comparably luxurious lifestyle. He's been looking forward to seeing if he can still cope with the challenges of this environment.

He's walking back past his tent when he spots Brad ahead of him. Brad's walking slowly and he pulls up just short of the entrance. Nate stops too, watches Brad. Nate doesn't know what he thinks he's going to see. He's pleased Brad was obviously coming to seek him out, wasn't that the same reason Nate left the tent anyway? Brad doesn't move from his spot at the entrance though so Nate draws a deep breath, ignoring the tremor of anticipation that threads through him, and calls his name.

{{}}

Brad remembers their day together with perfect clarity. At least, he believes he does. He remembers the days before it, counting them down, excited to be off to England, released from limbo. He took long rides on his bike, telling himself it was because he had missed it so much, not because he needed a release from the ceaseless anticipation sprinting round his body. Everything had been pent up in Iraq. It took a while to realize perhaps it was okay to let it out now. He remembers waiting, watching for a sign from Nate, the opportunity to move in. In the end he just ran out of time. He was three days out from his departure date when he knocked at Nate's door.

Nate was shirtless when he answered the door, gym towel round his neck like he just finished working out, jogging-pants sitting low. Brad remembers thinking, good, less clothing to negotiate.

He doesn't remember having any doubts. He supposes those crept in afterwards.

Nate, Nate, it had felt strange saying the LT's name in his head, the word felt even stranger on his tongue. Brad knew the LT, he had spent a month in the desert tracing the edges of his platoon commander, puzzling him out and propping him up. Nate was unknown territory that Brad was finally, finally, charting.

Brad pushed Nate up against the wall of his room; he was done with all the inference and subtlety that had been their territory in Iraq. No one here had stripes on their shoulders, no uniforms at all; just tattoos and shared memories of a quagmire of sand and death and uncertainty.

Nate tasted clean despite the workout, looked healthy from it. Not how the LT would have tasted. Brad had a moment of regret for not taking what he wanted back in Iraq but the insistence of Nate's mouth on Brad's jaw, at his neck, stopped Brad from dwelling on it. The man in front of him was stunning, greedy and carefree in a way Brad's LT could never have been. This was what Brad got for having come through Iraq without making the move he was so desperate to make. Brad thought of Nate as he knew him, buried beneath the weight of responsibility and compromise, Brad could only have been an added conflict within Nate then. There's no sign of that once Brad has Nate caught between his body and the wall.

Nate pushed Brad back, grin wide on his face, "It wasn't just me then," he said, running a hand over his newly shaved head, mesmerizing Brad with the stretch of his muscles as he moved.

"Fuck no," Brad breathed, "It was all me."

"Bedroom's this way," Nate said, laughing and leading the way. "Price of entry is your fucking t-shirt."

Brad remembers it being glorious. He remembers it felt like arriving at something worthwhile after floundering in the desert for so long. In so many ways, Nate was the oasis.

Brad wonders now how it was it felt so much like a beginning. He wonders if it was just a brief flash of euphoria after months of repression. It had felt inevitable, after what they'd been through, it simply had to happen, but perhaps it was inevitable that it would crescendo in that one moment and then disappear off out of their systems. At least he supposes that's what happened with Nate.

Brad left for England with the sound of Nate coming, soft desperate half-abandoned breaths, replaying in his ears. Odd memories, smells and sights jogged his senses at unexpected times. Seeing someone ahead of him in the boarding queue tilt his head just the way Nate had for example, things Brad hadn't really been aware that he was noticing, like the way Nate walked or gestured or phrases he used too often that Brad found himself repeating without thinking about it. In these moments Brad felt his stomach lurch with the wary knowledge that he was walking away from something he shouldn't be.

"Look me up," Nate had said, the door already open, Nate half in darkness as a result, "When you get done with England, come look me up."

Brad had planned to. He hadn't written, he hadn't emailed or skyped like he was forced to do with his sister. He hadn't managed to send anyone the number for his British sim-card. But he had planned to go back.

He knows he fucked up.

He knows he shouldn't have expected Nate to understand his need to exist in a bubble of his own current experience in order to survive it. His ex-girlfriend hadn't been able to understand, he hadn't explained it to her either. He had just somehow assumed Nate would know without having to be told. Brad doesn't know how to do his job and worry about the outside world at the same time. Nate burst through his bubble because he was there the whole way through Iraq, in front of Brad, in his headset, at his shoulder. Brad hadn't been able to look away.

He doesn't make contact because he can't afford to, sanity is important to combat effectiveness. Brad doesn't want to be wishing he was anywhere else. He doesn't want to be missing anything. He's just on-hold.

He thought Nate would understand, he thought Nate would wait.

He shouldn't have assumed it would be automatic. Because Brad does come back from the UK and he does look Nate up but Nate is married and Brad feels like a fool for holding onto something that lasted a paltry 32 hours outside of a combat zone.

It's another few years, one attempted-girlfriend, lots of decidedly-male hookers, and two more tours of Iraq later but Ray's wedding is still hell on earth – and that's after he's spent time in Fallujah.

Nate brings his wife; they don't even look happy. Brad lends new meaning to the word 'surly' as he fulfils his Best Man duties. He tells far more Ray-being-gross-and-sexually-inappropriate stories than he intended to in his speech. Ray's grandmother is totally justified when she physically assaults him with her handbag after he sits back down.

Only once that whole day had he spotted Nate on his own – at the bar. Brad's feet had directed him over there without his say so. Nate had turned away from the bar, almost stepping into Brad before he saw him. Brad waited, heart in his mouth if he's honest, but feeling something brutal and urgent rush through him as he drew himself up with all the presence his height and weight could muster, like he was on parade before the Move Out order. He had wanted Nate to know there was something here to be confronted and dealt with.

Brad doesn't really even remember what Nate finally said to him, words spoken quietly, as a long steadying breath escaped him. Brad doesn't know what he replied with, just that the mundane sentences passing between them cut him off at the knees - the proof of how very over they were. What's a month in a Humvee convoy and one night in a half-packed-up Officer's billet to compare with years of marriage? In one instant Brad forgets what it was he was holding on to.

Brad rotates out of active duty, starts training the new guys, is by turns appalled and amazed by the people and the attitudes he encounters. Occasionally as he sends them on their way he finds himself hoping that they wind up with a commander like Lieutenant Fick rather than the more likely alternative. It's the best he can wish for them.

If Brad thinks of that day and a half he and Nate spent together now it's just as though they were lost days set apart from the normal ebb and flow of the years, like the times he finds a book he loves and reads and reads until it's over and then he emerges from that world back into his life.

It's the tail end of a shitty 2012, four months into a six, possibly eight, month tour, and the middle of Hicksville, Afghanistan when Brad sees Nate for what's pretty much only the third time since Iraq. Nate's standing near the DFAC tent with two young, very green-looking American civilians and one Afghani man. Nate himself looks far more First Civilian Division then Brad would expect. Brad concentrates on that, on how un-regulation Nate's hair is, rather than how well the rough waves suits him; he thinks how he's seen him in uniform and naked and in black tie but never slacks and a casual high-collared jumper like now and tries not to observe to himself how comfortably academic but still fucking hot Nate looks. Nate's smiling quietly at something one of his companions is saying and there's that same tilt of his head and one-shoulder shrug that's been haunting Brad without his permission for nigh on a decade. Brad doesn't know why Nate's here or what to make of it. It's pretty surreal as these things go and Brad calls out to him, more to see if he's real than because he's thought it through.

Nate's smiling when he slowly turns to look at Brad, drawing Brad to him, and he may look like a civilian but when he introduces Brad to his colleagues the way he pronounces Brad's rank still holds all the ease and authority of the LT Brad remembers.

Brad hardly gets a word in before they're being hustled forward by the long line of hungry Marines. Brad doesn't think he could be less hungry but he takes a tray and a massive dollop of potato slop and sausage nonetheless.

Brad studies Nate covertly as they eat. Nate's clearly the boss of his little team, the way they respect him and unconsciously allow for his authority feels quite familiar to Brad. It's triggering all sorts of LT-related memories. Nate's quiet, he seems happy to let them grill Brad for information. Brad tells them what he thinks Nate will want to know, what he would have told the LT. He feels vaguely uncomfortable that it's still so easy to make that association ten or so years after the fact.

He remembers he's supposed to debrief 2/6's Advisor Team Leaders on the Designated Marksman courses five minutes before the meeting starts and he beats a hasty retreat, attempting to get his head back on his job as he jogs across the camp.

He coasts through the briefing without really having to engage, it's going smoothly by all accounts. The ANA soldiers coped well on the M-24s considering the training was five days, not the three weeks a Marine would usually get for his initial training on the sniper rifles. From underneath his insurmountable distraction, Brad fights to remember he cares.

Before he knows it he's found out what barrack Nate's been assigned to and wound up outside it. He's not exactly sure whether to go in, uncertainty wells up inside him: Nate clearly didn't know he was here until he saw him this afternoon, he barely said anything to Brad throughout dinner. Who says he wants to be interrupted this late in the evening? He must be tired from his trip.

Even Brad can recognize that he's just stalling himself so his mind can process the it's been ten years Jesus fucking Christ why am I feeling like this? that has won't stop circling his body. He thought he put this to bed a long fucking time ago. All the while he's staring at the flimsy tent-flap which could very well flick open and expose his position at any moment.

Brad's steeling himself (kicking his own proverbial ass) to either walk in or make an about turn - when he hears Nate calling him and the decision is made for him.

The thing about Nate, about the LT, is that when Brad's looking at him, he doesn't have to try hard, or remember how this works, it's just easy. It just is. Like it was before.

"Hey," Brad says, "Doing some night recon?" Because light and teasing is something he knows how to do again, all of a sudden. Nate falls into step with Brad, with his mood, without missing a beat.

"Latrine mission," Nate says. Brad feels himself thawing out at this tiny offering Nate gives him, at his quiet way of telling Brad, he remembers too.

{{}}

Nate smiles, it's all so familiar, "Without NVGs?" He quips as they walk away from the line of tents.

"They're not standard civilian issue I'm afraid." Nate doesn't say, 'no batteries' but it's a close one.

"Ah yes, civilian." Brad says it as if he's weighing the idea of a non-military Nate in his mind, like it's new to him. Nate feels a long way from the LT Brad knew in 2003, but perhaps that's still who he is in Brad's mind. It's a strange thought, that Lieutenant Fick still exists separately from Nate himself, he feels almost fond of his former self, young, idealistic in a way he's not felt for a long time. In love. It took him a long time to acknowledge it, but yeah, that Nate was in love.

"So?" Nate asks after a little pause. He's still not sure what to ask first but in the end goes with, "How long have you been in Afghanistan?"

"Four months. Two to go, supposedly."

"Right." Nate supposes Brad'll be lucky to get away with six months the way tours have been perennially extended over the course of this war. "How's it been?"

Brad shrugs, Nate knows it's a useless question. What's Brad supposed to tell him? From Nate's own, severely limited, knowledge, four months includes the insurgency's 20 man-strong assault on Bastion, it includes the temporary suspension of Police training after five grunts were killed in a week, and how many other attacks and botched missions and heartbreaking casualties that Nate has never, will never hear of?

"I don't know Nate. It's like nothing on earth. It's Afghanistan. I would say four steps forwards, eight steps back and at least a round dozen on the spot, but who the fuck knows what is forwards anymore?" He sounds pretty resigned.

"And ANA?" Nate asks, "Will they be up to it?"

"Yeah, perhaps. It's different to training our guys, they don't respond to the same stimulus or the same disciplines. They walk further, they take more crap, they don't bitch the same way our guys do. Some things out here are far more intuitive to them then they could ever be to Americans but in other ways they can be the most fucking stubborn annoying bastards to ever pick up weapons and no one really knows if they'll have the heart for the job once we're gone."

Nate raises his eyebrows. There's a lot to unpick in Brad's answer but he thinks maybe Sophie was right; it's for a workday. Instead he asks, "Why did you come back?"

"They asked," Brad says, "I needed to change things up and I hadn't been back since the beginning. If it had been Iraq I would probably have said, fuck no. Went twice more after our tour. Far more than is necessary in a lifetime it turns out."

Brad's statement hangs in the air, a finality to it that means Nate won't ask for any more information. They pass a small stand where about 8 guys are huddled, smoking, but they keep walking. Nate assumes Brad has a destination in mind.

"And how are you liking the sights of Leatherneck?" Brad inquires jokingly.

"A holiday-makers dream," Nate replies, letting himself be distracted back to banter. "Too bad I didn't pack my deck chair for sun-bathing tomorrow."

"Hmmm," Brad answers, "Good job really, don't want the missus to get jealous when you start flaunting your beach body in front of us grunts and rednecks."

Nate grins at the picture and he's glad to find an easy way to say, "Sadly there is no missus anymore, Brad."

Brad looks at him a little too sharply, "No? What happened?"

Nate can't quite tell if Brad really hadn't heard. "Oh I don't know, the usual I guess. Didn't love each other enough, or in the right way at least." Nate sighs. He hates having to explain the choices he's made, especially this one, especially to Brad. It feels a little disloyal to Claire who was the one to pick up the pieces after Brad effectively radio-silenced their fledgling relationship into dust.

"I'm sorry." Brad says, and it sounds like he means it.

They reach a small area with a few bench-presses pushed together. No one's using them and Brad gestures to Nate to have a seat.

They sit in silence a while until Brad asks, "How long have you been divorced?"

"Four years." Nate admits. He doesn't say how often in those years he's thought of looking Brad up. He'd chalked it up to rebound instincts and maybe regret for missed opportunities. Now though, looking at Brad, he doesn't know why he never did, even just to say hi and find out how he was. Nate thinks with how easy it feels sat here maybe he missed out on a friend. He wants to tell Brad he missed him; that he's sorry he never got back in contact, after. But Nate had told himself there was nothing to miss, that the intensity of a conflict situation could never be replicated anyway so why make it into something it wasn't. He suspects had already made the decision after Iraq, not to wait, to try to move on from Brad at the same time as moving on from the Corps. It had felt like a two-for-one deal.

Brad nudges Nate's shoulder with his own, "And otherwise, how's it going?"

Nate smiles, heaving himself back into the moment, "Good, I think. I like D.C. it feels like home now. The Institute at Georgetown – in whose name we're doing this research – it's gaining prominence, and the work feels valid in a way I wasn't sure it would after the Corps. I walk my dog – when she's not at my wife's, see friends, feel bad about not going to the gym…." Nate's not sure what else to say.

"I'd say it sounds great but I get the feeling you're playing down the workaholic aspect. I can probably ask your lackeys about that though," Brad taunts.

"Good luck getting anything out of them after you've called them my lackeys." Nate doesn't want to think about how right Brad is about the workaholic thing. Nate was aware that it was a bad sign that he was thinking about this trip as a break but after a few seemingly endless days in the office he had caught himself feeling exactly that way.

"Now you know where Leatherneck's most well-equipped gym is anyway," Brad says, slapping his hand down on the bench. "Want me to spot you?"

Nate senses a challenge in the air, not that he stands a hope in hell against a clearly well-maintained Brad Colbert, but it's enough that it's a challenge for himself. He gives Brad a bit of a glare, because he knows he's being played, but he still shuffles himself around to lie on the bench as Brad gets up, towering over him. Brad messes around with the weights and Nate fixes his hands on the bar, hopes Brad's going to go easy on him.

Brad looks down at him from his spotter's position over at Nate's head. Something about being horizontal and exposed like this in front of Brad is intoxicating and Nate knows this is the real reason he agreed to do something as ridiculous as lift weights right now.

It feels about 150/170lbs when Nate lifts it, but Nate really hasn't been hitting the gym lately so he's not sure. If he's honest he much prefers running anyway. He heaves the bar up ten times, puffing out carefully controlled breaths as he goes, it's not too much of a strain but he knows it won't have impressed Brad.

"Three more," comes the commanding tone. Nate knows Brad means reps not lifts. He can't remember why he started this. He does the reps, even though the last set kills him, he looks up at Brad, breathing much heavier than he'd like. Brad's hands are on the bar next to his, not touching, but close. He's looking down at Nate's now sweaty face and laughing openly.

"Geez LT I hope you're well-armed, there's no chance you're getting away from insurgents any other way." Nate doesn't think Brad even noticed slipping in Nate's old rank there.

Brad finally touches him when he reaches for Nate's hand and hauls him up to a stand. Brad smiles, "Seen worse though. Must still be a bit of Marine buried in there somewhere."

He doesn't ask Brad to show what he can do, he's not really interested in a pissing contest, even an amicable one but he must have retained a slight masochistic streak because he still asks what weight Brad can lift.

"Oh I don't really know, I don't use the gym much either."

Nate cocks him a disbelieving eyebrow, but Brad continues, "I prefer to run, do drills, get my pack on, Rudy style. Turns out I'm old school these days."

Nate nods, that makes sense really.

"Want to run with me tomorrow?" Brad asks. "It wouldn't take much to get you in shape."

Brad's look is just a little bit too appraising for Nate to feel comfortable but he agrees anyway. Running will be good here. He well remembers how easy it is to start getting cabin-fever in a camp like this one. That was probably how he got his heart in such a mess in the first place.

"Sure, we're meeting Dieter at 0900. What time do you run?"

Brad scoffs at him, "Sunrise Nate."

Of course, Nate should have known. He remembers seeing Brad out there, daybreak or sometimes earlier. He always liked to run alone, before anyone else was up, even on days when runs were scheduled. Nate remembers sitting outside his tent, brushing his teeth, watching Brad make his circuit of Mathilda, top-half bared to the cold, morning light. Nate hasn't thought about that picture for a long time.

"Sunrise it is then." They've started walking again, by mutual decision, Brad steering them back towards Nate's barracks.

"It's good to have you here, Nate." Brad says when they reach the entrance flap to the tent.

"It's good to see you too, Brad," Nate replies. "See you in the morning."

"Yeah," Brad says, and it's a little breathless, like he planned for something to follow it, but nothing comes out. Nate gives him a last look. Brad fucking Colbert. Nate wants to reach out, touch him, pull him in. He realizes it all of a sudden, like his brain just managed to catch on to the signals his body has been sending.

Nate's spent much more time denying his body those impulses than giving in to them though, so he manages to get himself into the tent without doing anything stupid.

Nate uses his torch to find his way back to his rack. The tent reeks of feet, rather predictably. He climbs into bed, letting the ache of his arms distract and comfort him. Brad's here. He can't help the shiver his body answers in response to the thought. It's been such a long time. Nate doesn't even really count Ray's wedding, Brad was busy being best man and he'd hardly even looked at Nate. Claire had been with Nate and they'd been fighting. Nate had been fucking nervous about seeing Brad and he hadn't been able to do anything but ask stiff questions and make sweeping generalizations about his life when any of the guys asked anything. There had been just one moment at the bar, when they were both collecting drinks for friends and Nate had asked quietly, "How've you been?" and Brad had looked at him properly, eyes frank and piercing, not answering for long seconds, until he'd smiled falsely and said, "Not bad, LT, not bad at all." That had been it. Nothing else. Nate had felt blind-sided for weeks afterwards.

It was funny how different it was this time.

He lay restlessly in the dark, listening to everyone else breathing. He made himself run through talking points for meeting the General the next day rather than think about running with Brad in a few hours time.

He woke up to the sound of Grant's snoring again and Hafiz throwing a water-bottle at him. It was just getting light. Nate felt stiff and really pretty unclean as he pulled himself out of bed.

"Going for a run," he mouthed to Hafiz who nodded sleepily before pulling his blanket over his head. Nate headed out to a water trough and doused his face and armpits in freezing cold water. He waited by his tent looking out into the rapidly dispersing grey mist for a sign of Brad. At last he came strolling out just as the sun appeared behind him. The sight of Brad, all height and strength and health, blonde hair framed by the light was not something Nate could have prepared for. Aryan bastard. Maybe this is why he runs alone, first thing, Nate thinks a little wildly, there'd be some kind of riot if everyone got to see him like this. Nate's pretty sure topless must be completely unnecessary at this time of year, it's about 7 degrees out but it doesn't stop him looking his fill.

"Brrrr, morning," Brad says, acknowledging Nate and the cold, "Let's get moving."

He runs off and Nate follows.

It's a hard run, the camp is large, it houses roughly 20,000 people, and Brad leads him round the entire perimeter. Nate keeps up well but Brad manages to maintain a steady stream of conversation while Nate can mostly just grunt in agreement as they go. Brad tells him about his work, about some of the guys he's training, about some of the fuck ups. He gives Nate a heads up on some of the officers too and Nate remembers a time when he would have shut down that kind of talk from Brad, he feels the instinct to do the same here as well, but he realizes he doesn't have a responsibility to do that anymore and it could be helpful to hear Brad's assessment of his commanders and colleagues.

The meeting with Dieter afterwards goes well. The General seems happy enough to trust Nate to get on with managing his own business and work around IMEF's operation and the functioning of the camp. He gets introduced to a couple of the other US officers and five ANA Captains who he and his team are probably going to end up spending a lot of time with. They run through the aims of their research and their methodology. He tries not to go into too much detail but just be up front with the commanders about what he's going to need from them in terms of time and information. Everyone seems agreeable enough and Nate feels fairly happy with how the meetings have gone by the time they head out for lunch. They get assigned a little desk space in the H&S HQ for the afternoon which Nate is grateful for and they knuckle down to some work, organizing themselves ready to start interviews and assessments in the next few days. Nate wonders what Brad's up to. He'd mentioned something about a Squad Leader's course that he'd been developing but in Nate's experience that could mean anything.

They don't see Brad all day and they spend the evening letting Hafiz thrash them at rummy while sat on Nate's rack. Nate walks Sophie to her tent at 11pm, ostensibly because she doesn't have a torch with her, but Nate knows he could have just lent her his. He dawdles on the way back, there are a few guys hanging out near the bench-presses tonight, not that Nate wants a repeat of that particular activity, but still he can't help looking to check it's not Brad.

He gets up at sunrise again the next day and this time he's still washing his face when Brad reaches him.

"Hey," Brad says, "Thought I'd check if you were up for round two."

"Sure," Nate says, trying not to interpret the statement in reference to anything outside of their run. He hauls his jumper up over his head, "Ready."

They run the same route as yesterday and if it's already familiar to Nate, Brad must be sick of it after four months. He suggests this to Brad who smiles widely at him. "Whatever can you mean, Nate? Sometimes I even run the opposite way round and on the anniversary of my Bar Mitzvah I did a special figure of eight through the camp which really got my juices flowing."

Nate laughs. He can't help but love seeing Brad like this and he can't believe how carefree he feels given that he's in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. They keep running and Brad keeps chatting and running rings around Nate and teasing him about it. Nate feels younger than he has in years.

Obviously it doesn't last. Nate comes down to earth at breakfast when the news filters in that the entrance to FOB Now Zad was car bombed in the night. Someone says that eight guys were medevac'd and no one knows the names of the injured.

"Its 2nd battalion guys," Brad supplies, "They're embedded with ANA's Now Zad company."

There's not really anything to say, just hope that everyone gets the medical attention they need as quickly as possible. A young corporal comes running for Brad and Brad leaves with him quickly. Brad's attached to 2nd Battalion's outfit; he's going to be needed to deal with the fall-out from this, whatever it is. Nate has a moment of frustration at his powerlessness. This isn't his world anymore, however much he may skate along the sidelines of it, they don't need him here and there's nothing he can do. It's a horrible feeling.

Thankfully of the - what turns out to be six – injured, everyone except the perpetrator survives and the FOB gateway is reconstructed quickly with added security in place, at least temporarily, but the mood at Leatherneck is still comparatively quiet, at least as far as Nate can tell. He doesn't see Brad for three long days but Nate goes running every morning at dawn anyway. Alone, there's a peacefulness to it that doesn't exist at any other time here. Nate allows himself to think perhaps he understands why Brad likes this. He wonders how happy Brad's been about sharing this time with Nate, perhaps when Brad gets back Nate should give him some space. Brad's seemed pleased to see him, has actively sought him out a couple of times now, but Nate doesn't want to lie to himself that he knows what that means. He's been wrong before, he'd assumed Brad was much more invested than he turned out to be. Nate likes having Brad back in life, likes having his friendship. He doesn't want to push it too far if it won't be welcome.

Nate and his team start meeting with the marines of 6th Regiment, lots of them have good things to say about the training they're doing with the Afghan army and police force. A lot of the men demonstrate pride over the ANA guys they're embedded with. They talk about them like teammates and clearly hope their work will be enough to keep their guys alive once the US pulls out.

Several guys mention Brad Colbert. They explain about the trainings Brad has developed, some mention specific instances when he's given them advice, others talk more generally about his reputation and what it means that a guy like him is out here contributing to this process. It's all music to Nate's ears, even the bits about what a hard-ass Brad has been in certain instances. The Corps needs that side of him too. Nate notes every detail down – far more than is relevant to his study – just to be doing something that isn't smiling madly at every mention of Brad and telling every instance he ever witnessed of Brad being even remotely competent in combat – which is to say, every story Nate has about Brad. He feels an impulse to claim Brad, he wants to be able to say more than just 'Brad was my platoon's team leader in OIF' and he doesn't even say that.

Nate's 35 and it's been 10 years. He wonders if he's a lost cause when it comes to Brad Colbert.

Brad shows up for the run the next day. He's waiting outside the tent when Nate emerges. "Someone told me you've been running without me."

Nate's still a little too bleary eyed to manage more than a nod. He'd been dreaming about his team getting ambushed crossing a canal at night. He throws water on his face and stumbles after Brad. They run together, their footfall synchronizing like they're on an exercise. The pound, pound, pound of their boots on the sandy track fills Nate's awareness, he puts his head down, focuses on matching his stride to Brad's, doesn't think about Fedayeen hiding in trees waiting to kill his men.

When they come to a stop by a water distribution point Nate doesn't know how long they've been running. He's feeling pretty breathless though as he gulps down water from the bottle Brad hands him. It's only when he's finished drinking that he realizes he's grabbed Brad's arm to steady himself. Nate wishes he hadn't noticed, and then he wouldn't have to take his hand away. Brad's skin is slick with sweat, Nate's eyes focus on the deep rise and fall of Brad's chest. Fuck, he's beautiful. Nate forces himself to look away, makes the rest of his body turn to follow his head. He closes his eyes just for a moment, to keep the picture there at the forefront of his vision.

"Alright?" Brad asks gently. Brad puts a hand on Nate's shoulder, friendly-like.

For a minute Nate can't bear it. He doesn't want touch as meaningless as this. He looks back at Brad, eyes on his face this time. "Yeah, sorry, just needed to clear my head I guess."

"Come on, let's shower before eating, we ran a lot harder than normal."

Nate doesn't really know if he can do it, his body suddenly feels far too aware of Brad's, but in the end it's okay, there's a half-dozen other guys making use of the communal billet showers and Nate just gets on with his business and keeps his eyes to himself. He closes his eyes for a minute with his hand on the water button, leans his head forward, tries not to let this all be too much. When he shuts the shower off Brad's watching him, eyes full of a concern Nate's sure isn't really necessary. Brad hands Nate a towel and his hand is shaking slightly. It's cold and the showers were luke warm at best but to accept that as the explanation would be to discount the look in Brad's eyes. It doesn't mean Nate is sure what to make of it.

Nate goes back to the barracks to get dressed properly and collect the others. Hafiz is smoking, waiting for him and they get Grant and Sophie and head to the DFAC. Brad's waiting for them and Nate lets them ask Brad the questions about what he's been up to the last couple of days. The occasional look Brad throws Nate tells him the detailed explanation is mostly for his benefit. Nate stays quiet, he's kind of busy being distracted by the way his entire body wants to hurl itself at Brad. He remembers this feeling but it's even more unexpected and out of place than it used to be. Every time he reaches for his glass he gets the urge to reach past it to Brad's hand, his neck, his cheek even. His leg twitches underneath the table because it can't stretch out to rub against Brad's leg. He's a mess of nerve endings and it's 0830.

"Nate?"

"Yeah?"

"I'm overseeing a couple of census patrols tomorrow. I thought you might want to ride along, reporter-style? I cleared it with the higher-ups."

Nate smiles at the reminder of Evan, someone he still counts as a friend. He's prouder of the way the Rolling Stone reporter portrayed his men than he ever was about their battalion colors or any of that other bullshit. But Brad's offer gets Nate back focused on work. He definitely wants to go. "Just me?" he asks.

"We could probably justify Hafiz, if he's happy to come along. More interpreters the better and all that." Brad waggles his eyebrows at Nate. More references to the past. "But not you guys I'm afraid," Brad addresses Sophie and Grant.

"How long would we be out?" Nate says, thinking through how long he's happy to leave the other two alone here, even as ensconced in the camp as they've become in the last few days.

"Maybe 8-10 hours total. We're not going far and there's a bird to drop us."

Nate gets enthusiastic smiles from Sophie and Grant so he goes with it, "Okay, sure, that'd be great."

He's already excited at the prospect of getting off base for a while.

They leave Brad and head off to the interview room they've been assigned for the day. It's slightly unfortunate that it looks like it doubles as a detainee holding cell. At lunchtime Nate sits outside the building and watches the aircraft coming and going over Bastion's runway. He counts 4 Merlins, 2 Apaches, 2 Ospreys and 4 Harrier Jets in the space of about 30 minutes which he guesses is pretty heavy going. The sand's blowing up a little around his feet but conversely he feels a little calmer about things now. Perhaps he was just letting the monotony of camp life get to him or something. He runs his hand through his hair as he stands up, another reminder that he's here as a civilian.

They still do their run first thing the next morning but it's short and fairly gentle and there's no time for showers or breakfast. Brad hands him what looks suspiciously like an MRE and the evil grin on Brad's face is confirmation of it.

"We're Oscar Mike, LT." Brad says as Nate quickly tries to change one over-worn t-shirt for another and Nate resists the urge to throw the packet at Brad's smirking face. Nate knows he's going to have to eat the entire pound cake just to prove a point.

The helicopter takes them out towards Gerishk and drops down near Hyderabad. Brad fills Nate in on the history of US and ISAF interventions in the area, some of which is pretty sobering, and Nate makes some mental adjustments to his questions for the townspeople.

They meet up with 1st Tolai, the Afghan platoon from the 216th at the small airfield where they set down. There's one RCT 7 Lima company team with them, the team leader is a Sergeant Travis who greets Brad warmly and Nate disinterestedly as they bundle themselves into his victor.

Hyderabad is first on the list, and Nate hopes that's because it's the most difficult. The town has been devastated by airstrikes in the past and the hostility in the air is evident. Nate and Hafiz stay near Sergeant Travis as he attempts to engage a couple of the town leaders in the census questions. Meanwhile Brad steps away to oversee the security steps 1st Tolai are enacting. Brad's marines do well demonstrating but it's a lot of hand gestures and miming so Nate sends Hafiz over. Travis has the only other interpreter so Nate doesn't really need Hafiz. Besides, they get less than nothing from the locals and they move out after only 45 minutes.

The next couple of towns are smaller, more like villages to Nate's eyes. Travis does better with the locals and Nate gets to ask his questions too. Nate records the conversations so the team can analyze it later. Brad runs through different security set ups, formations and dispersions, with the ANA troops and the other Marines in support. Nate thinks Brad looks pleased with how they're picking it up.

Nate squeezes in time to ask the marines and Afghan soldiers' questions as they wait for the helicopter to return, so all in all the day feels worth it.

He sits next to Brad in the chopper on the way back to base and they're quiet as they watch the sunset from the air. Their bodies are close, arms brushing, knees knocking as the bird shudders through the sky but Nate's a little too tired to think about anything but how pleasant a sensation it is. It's been a good day and he's been able to kid himself, perhaps a little too well, that he's here working with Brad again, sharing purpose and a goal, communicating like they used to. Nate's liked having that back, even if it's just for one day.

When they set down it's close to 1900.

"Hey," Brad says, "Since we're officially in Camp Bastion, you want to hang back and get dinner British-style?"

"Wow this is some date you've organized Brad." Nate says, and it's out of his mouth before he's realized it's not quite a joke. Brad just laughs though, like the idea of them on a date could only be funny to him.

"You wait," he says, "Bastion is the Vegas of Afghanistan if, you know, Vegas consisted of one Dry Bar and a Pizza Hut."

"Lead on," Nate gestures, and his smile is only a little forced.

They walk away from the airfield and Brad's clearly got the right clearances because they don't get hassled as they move through the camp.

"Hell, there are cities smaller than this." Nate says, awed despite himself.

"Yep, plenty of places to get lost round here," Brad says with satisfaction, and it's Nate's turn to wonder how much of a joke that was supposed to be.

The pizza is good, not like it is at home – too much olive oil and bland cheese to be proper Pizza Hut pizza but it's still good. Brad eats like it's his last meal and tips his Bavarian 0% malt "beer" at Nate in salute of the food and the company. Nate clinks his own bottle to Brad's, watches the necks slide together when neither of them draw their bottles away. Nate studies Brad's fingers clasping the base of the beer. Remembers them on his body, at his neck, round his waist as Brad pushed him into the wall that day he finally came over. He remembers lips kissing beneath his jaw in bed the next morning. Nate closes his eyes and pulls his bottle away to dismiss the visuals. He needs to focus on the here and now.

He looks back up and Brad's grinning at him, a reckless look in his eyes, "Sex flashback?" Brad asks.

Nate's instant blush gives him away long before he can summon the words to deny it. Nate shakes his head at Brad, of course he went there.

"What?" Brad says, "You want to pretend it didn't happen?"

And, no, Nate's never wanted that.

"It was a long time ago."

"So what? Act like we're drunk and share with the class."

Nate raises his eyebrows, stalling for time, he's doesn't know why Brad's pushing it. Or maybe he does know why but he's not sure what to do about it. He's so used to being conflicted about how to act around Brad he feels confused that this might just be that easy. If he had to define it, all they really had in the past was a one night stand. Just because Nate built it up in his mind, then refused to forget about it afterwards, doesn't make it any more than that. Brad's clearly putting sex back on the table. Nate doesn't suppose it could fuck him up any more than he already is over this. Which is depressing and masochistic but what the hell, he's got other things in his life to keep him busy when he gets home.

Nate feels old suddenly, doesn't think he can do sex talk with Brad over pizza, here of all places; he wonders if he ever could. Perhaps in another life where he was never Brad's commanding officer and Brad was never the consummate professional that he is. Instead he just puts the neck of his beer bottle back resting at the neck of Brad's bottle, lets it hover there before running up and down the length of it. He's not necessarily trying to be suggestive, just show Brad what it was that set him off thinking.

The "Jesus, Nate," that comes low and rattled out of Brad's throat makes Nate want to close his eyes and put his hand on his cock.

"We done here?" Nate asks, a little more wantonly than he's comfortable sounding.

"Fuck, yes." Brad replies already standing and moving away from the table. Brad hands over some tokens to the guys staffing the pizza hut, gets a cheerful, "Thanks Mate," for his trouble and then they're gone.

They hurry out of Bastion's compound, their pace keeps breaking into a jog and Nate watches their hands, fascinated as they drift towards each other and then jerk away, forgetful of the public setting in the need to touch each other. Nate doesn't even pretend to stay aware of where they're going. He keeps his eyes on Brad in a way he's never allowed himself to do before. He's no longer the one with responsibilities here. Not in the same way. If Brad wants this, here, now, Nate's happy to comply. He thinks about the work he's here to do and he feels wild and reckless because the only thing churning through his mind is, "Fuck it, fuck it, fuck it." It feels so out of character but it also feels fucking good. It will feel even better when Brad gets his hands on him.

There are a couple of security gates, a locked door that Brad has the code for and two corridors to navigate before Brad drags him into a small office space. Mercifully empty.

Brad pulls Nate all the way into his arms, lips finding lips. Nate holds on, feels swept up in something he doesn't fully comprehend but knows he's going to let it happen anyway. He wants a few more memories to live off before he remembers he's sensible and that self-preservation dictates he should call a halt to this.

He lets his hands re-learn Brad. It's breath-taking how familiar he feels. He's solid, insistent, unresisting, in ways Nate has never been able to imagine fully and yet Nate feels like he's tracing over known territory. He lifts his head up to gulp in air and Brad puts hot lips to his neck, gentle teeth to Nate's jaw. Nate shudders at the sensation, at his memory brought back to life, the truth of how much he's wanted this is laid out for them both to see. He's hard, his hips pushing into Brad's, he pulls at both their shirts together, tugging upwards, letting Brad help him.

Brad gets his arms back down first, back around Nate, chests crushing into one another in utterly gluttonous skin-to-skin contact. Nate simply rests his upper arms on Brad's shoulders, uses his lower arms and hands to angle Brad's head back down, enclosing it as they kiss again. Brad's hands snake up his back, hold Nate's shoulders, pressing them together even tighter. Nate feels like they're locked together. Brad rocks them back into the wall of the tiny office and groans into Nate's mouth when the movement jolts their lips apart. Nate chases the sound with his tongue, feels it reverberate down his spine. He wants Brad so much that even like this, this close, he doesn't know how to get everything he wants.

Brad pushes Nate's arm's up, starting at his pits and using strong hands to slide Nate's arms up the wall above his head. Brad pulls back and then starts to move down Nate's body, lips and tongue plastering themselves to Nate's chest, abdomen, hipbones. Nate lowers his hands back down onto Brad's shoulders, one hand stroking Brad's neck and up over his still-cropped hair. From this angle, apart from perhaps the width of the shoulders, this could be the same Brad who last did this, it could be just days later if Brad had never gone to England, or a mere two years on, if Nate had waited.

Nate would laugh at himself, because of course he's going to think he should have waited just as Brad pulls his pants down and gets a hand on his cock. But all he can do is groan at the feel of it, and at his own ridiculousness. Brad's hand moves slowly, his lips ghost over the head. Its torture, just like it will be torture later, remembering this. Nate didn't really realize he was so into pain. Nate's hand moves off Brad's shoulder, his fist hits the wall, his frustration is exquisite; and then Brad's mouth opens over his cock, surges over it and Nate can't help swearing loudly, "Fuck, Brad," to the photocopier in the corner. It's the first thing either of them has said since the Pizza Hut.

Brad's mouth is hot and slick, it feels greedy rather than particularly skilled but Brad's tongue is depraved and determined and Nate can't get enough of it. Nate holds on for as long as he can, he has no idea how long that is. It's so good that Nate has a moment of complete vindication over how much he's held onto this, onto Brad, over the years.

Nate moves his fist from the wall, flattening it to the side of Brad's face in warning. Brad looks up, eyes glazed, cheeks flushed and Nate's coming before Brad's moved far and the come hits Brad's neck and chest and the inside of Nate's wrist as he keeps his hand steady on Brad's jaw line. It stays there as Brad rises fully; he kisses Nate again even though Nate's in no state of mind to reciprocate. Nate puts his other hand to Brad's cock, reveling in the feel of it, hard and pulsing in his loose grip. Brad puts his hand over Nate's, "Just, let me." Brad grits out and Nate does. Let's Brad move Nate's hand up and down Brad's cock. Brad angles his face into Nate's wrist, laps at the come there. Nate sort of sighs at the sight and then Brad's kissing him again. Nate makes a concerted effort to tighten his grip on Brad's cock to provide the friction Brad needs and hears the resulting groan from Brad's mouth as it slides up to his ear. Brad comes all over both their hands, hot breath at Nate's ear, deafening Nate to everything except the obscenity-laced moan of Brad's orgasm.

Nate's hands come to rest on Brad's waist, holding him steady while he sways through the aftermath. Nate's ears are ringing with the sound of Brad coming, his shoulder hunching under the heavy weight of Brad's forehead. Nate kind of wants to go hit himself over the head with a couple of Latin textbooks for being so stupidly into this, into Brad. He's relaxed and so satisfied, bodily, and yet he can practically taste the idiotic things on his tongue, desperate sentences like, "I've wanted this for so long/ I want this all the time." Nate clings to as much dignity as he can, swallows down all the words.

"Christ," Brad, eloquent as ever, swears into Nate's neck. Nate smiles because he understands the statement.

"Yeah." Nate lets his head fall back, enjoys the heavy thud it makes as it hits the wall.

"Jesus," Brad clearly has a theme.

"Brad, don't make me make the joke about you being confused about whose dick you just sucked."

"Sorry, sorry, just, fucking goddammit Nate, that felt fucking great." Brad pulls back a little, looks Nate straight in the eye. Nate doesn't know what to tell him.

"Yeah," he says, because of course it felt amazing and yet he still has no idea how to get what he wants from Brad. Knows there's nothing Brad could say to bridge that gap he created between them when he went to England and never looked back. It's still a waiting game to see if it's going to be any different this time.

Nate closes his eyes in the face of the telepathic interrogation Brad is apparently attempting. The kiss that lands on Nate's lips is surprising. It's gentle and feels like the same unformed question Brad had in his eyes, softer perhaps, but just as inquisitive. Nate sighs and opens his mouth to Brad, tries to open himself up as well, to hand over whatever Brad is looking for. What does it matter to Nate? He's going back to his life full of longing and regret no matter what. Perhaps with less ability to lie to himself about it but that went out the window pretty much the moment Brad spotted him in the dinner queue and called his name.

They kiss for a long time, slow and sated. Nate feels like he's losing himself to it somehow.

"Nate," Brad says eventually, and it seems as though he's being called from a great distance. He opens his eyes, adjusts to the intensity of Brad's proximity. Brad strokes a hand over his cheek and Nate holds back a shudder at how deceptively affectionate it feels.

"Nate." Brad's voice sounds unbearably loving, "You have to make a move sometime. You gotta let me know what you want. In the end."

Nate feels his eyes widen, it's not like he could have known, from the scarce contact they've had since Iraq, since that night afterwards; but he still feels the full stomach-lurching meaning of the "penny-dropping", the realization that what they had, or possibly have even, means something to Brad still.
Brad is awe-inspiring, Brad is one-hundred per cent laying it out there, his eyes bore into Nate, like ice so cold it burns the skin, tearing Nate up, forcing him to rise to the challenge. Nate can't dispute the look in Brad's eyes, the evidence of his searing-soft fingers still tracing his cheekbone, however confounding it seems to Nate.

He'd say, "You," but he can't bear to give in to this so easily. Instead he says, "Come see me, in D.C., as soon as you're back. Come see me – I'll make my move." Nate wants to know he's more than a momentary thing, that he can exist for Brad outside of the here and now. Nate had thought he did once. He kisses Brad, "I'll make all the moves." He kisses him again, "Jesus, fuck, just come see me, okay?"

"Okay," Brad says, kissing him back, curling into him with a fierceness Nate never wants to forget.

"Okay, okay, good." Nate says. "Now get me back to my rack, I have no fucking clue where we are."

"Something happen to compromise your situational awareness, Sir?" Brad asks, sounding more like himself by the second.

"You could say that," Nate admits.

"Fucking officers," Brad says, grinning and doing up his pants.

Nate throws Brad's t-shirt at his face. "Let's move. I've got minions to check in with."

"Oh really," Brad laughs, "That's what they call them in the world of policy and diplomacy? Interesting."

Nate follows Brad out of the room, tries to stop his head from spinning and remember what it was he came here to do because suddenly it feels like this is why he's here.

They part at the entrance to Nate's tent. Nate turns and gives Brad an "I'll see you," and a mortifyingly corny wave. He gets a nod and a smirk in return.

Luckily when he gets back to the others he finds Hafiz has already filled Grant in on most of the day's earlier activities so he doesn't have to try to be too detailed. Instead they ask about the pizza and he sees their mouths water as he tells them and feels a tad mean for not inviting them along.

When he eventually gets himself into bed his mind immediately returns to Brad and what they just did. He doesn't feel regret as such, but not exactly the satisfaction he was expecting either. He wishes he had taken more time to look at Brad, take him in. How many mornings this week has he stared at Brad's back while they ran, dying to get his lips on the gaudy tattoos, trace over the new ones, the ones he's never kissed before. It was incredible to feel Brad's lips on his dick, to thrust into Brad's mouth over and over and know it was really Brad kneeling in front of him; but in the haze of his orgasm he'd barely registered Brad's cock in his hand. He tries to recall the tight grip of Brad's hand around his, directing it up and down Brad's cock, rough and fast.

He wants more time and he doesn't know if he's going to get it.

{{}}

Brad lies awake replaying the whole night from the beer bottle in the pizza place onwards, trying to enjoy it rather than analyze it. Nate's lips opening under his, the chance to crush Nate between his body and a wall one more time, Nate's thick cock rocking into his mouth, Nate's hand at his jaw. The sound of him, the heady moment when he realized he could recognize the little pleasured noises Nate was making. It was a thousand times more satisfying than his memory of those sounds but Brad can't help the thrill of satisfaction that he had in fact remembered accurately.

He jacks himself slowly, refusing to let the urgency he feels overtake his enjoyment. He falls asleep after he comes but it's fitful and he's up long before dawn waiting for the sun to put in an appearance so he can go find Nate again. In the end he gives up the wait and just runs in the dark. He watches the sunrise alone from the bench-press where he'd brought Nate the first night. He tries to think through how to make this work this time. It's Nate and so much of it is so easy, it's always been easy, but he knows he can't take it for granted this time.

When Nate finally emerges from his tent it's still incredibly early. Nate looks just as sleep deprived as Brad. Brad offers up one of his best smiles but Nate only looks a little shy in return. His eyes blink at Brad blearily and he looks so young. For a moment Brad can hardly credit him as the eminent professor and policy consultant that he is. There's a minute of stillness between them until Nate cracks a grin and uses what must be his best ex-marine, lecturer-voice to ask, "Running or fucking?"

Brad gulps. He's going to need to be more prepared if Nate is going to be in this kind of mood.

In the end they run because Brad knows they'd never get done fucking in time to get out of H&S's stationary office in time. DADT may be history but Brad is fully aware that it isn't quite history enough to stomach a marine Master Sergeant going at it with his former Lieutenant on base in-country while a photocopier xeroxes their asses. He's going to need to think creatively about where to find privacy in this camp.

They don't talk about anything much as they do their circuit of the camp, just expectations for the day and so on. Brad has to do some after-action on yesterday's patrol with Travis and Nate plans to get caught up with Sophie and Grant and then get on with their interviewing.

"I'll come find you," Brad tells Nate when they go their separate ways, his words full of promise.

They do find a couple of hours and a de-commissioned Utility Room two days later. Brad has been out of camp again in between - running through TL training programs with a few of the Lieutenants and Sergeants for use in FOB outposts. On his return he finds he can only be bothered with the most perfunctory of showers before he goes looking for Nate. He'd thought of this particular Utility Room while he'd been sat leant against a massive sandbag in OP Jester trying not to kill one particular guitar-wielding Corporal who couldn't stop singing abhorrent country songs with titles like God Gave Me You and Honey Bee. Brad had to shower just to stop his skin-crawling after that.

The room he's found is full of broken laundry machines, radio equipment and other mechanical items that have all been left there in anticipation of the robot apocalypse. There's no way the military is going to be bothered to do anything with them. There's not much space left in the room but the chances of being interrupted are as close to nil as Brad could hope for so he reckons they can make do. Nate snarks at him a little but still helps throw a 1990s-looking fax-machine to the top of the pile. They wind up with roughly two square feet of floor space and the cleared top of a washing machine to work with.

This first time, Nate bends Brad over the machine, fucks into him from behind using Brad's condoms and lube Brad stole from the hospital two days earlier. Brad loves how good he feels when Nate pushes in, when he feels small kisses along his neckline, a finger tracing the outline of his most recent ink. He grips the side of the washing machine and takes Nate's cock, pushing back to get all of it. The unmistakable need that fuels Nate's movements makes Brad feel completely at his mercy. Brad concentrates on holding himself steady, protecting his cock from the edge of the machine until Nate's hand reaches around to grip Brad there, stroking in syncopation with his thrusts into Brad so Brad can't get a handle on the rhythm and has to give himself up to Nate's demands. He thinks they come together that time.

It's another two days before they're back in the Utility Room. Nate had been over in Shorabak, the ANA Camp the other side of Bastion, and he and his team stayed one night to get all the work done rather than get driven back and forth. Nate tells him they're nearly done with the interviews and research they needed to be in Helmand for. They leave for Kabul in two days. Brad doesn't really want to hear it.

In terms of their relationship this has felt like the opposite of Iraq. Everything he'd told himself he couldn't have then, he's now taking. Every moment of pent up frustration and untaken chance is getting exorcised from Brad's body. Nate sits up on the washing machine, which is quickly becoming Brad's favorite household appliance, and opens himself up to Brad. Brad gets his mouth on Nate's cock again, his fingers at his hole. Brad marvels at the man before him. This Nate before him now seems to have decided Brad is his priority above everything else – Brad can't see how else this could be happening here – and Brad feels all the anger and bitterness over Nate loosen up inside him. He'd been holding on to it, he realizes, as a protection.

He pushes into Nate as slowly and deliberately as he can. Nate props himself up on his elbows, demands kisses and growls at Brad to, "Move." In two days time he knows Nate is going to seem like a mirage. Brad's already dreading it. He thrusts up faster, losing control as he seeks to hold onto what he's got here.

Nate comes first, arching under Brad, shaking from the exertion. He stays propped on his elbows but drops his head back, gasping out his shattered pleasure. He's so fucking beautiful stretched out like that, it almost makes Brad want to close his eyes. In the end he has too, unable to control his body as he comes inside Nate, just the second time he's ever done that.

He says something as he comes, he knows he does because Nate is looking at him fervently, nodding and telling him, "Yes, yes, I will, of course I will."

Brad's wondering if he can ask what it was Nate will do but then Nate kisses him as Brad pulls out of him and Nate whispers, low and sad, "I should have waited the first time."

{{}}

Nate says it because it's true, not because he thinks it could have been different. He didn't know what Brad wanted back then and he loves Claire a lot. He can't help but be grateful to her for loving him back, for pulling him through when he was flailing in his post-Corps world. It doesn't make it any less true. If he had held on, believed in what he and Brad had in Iraq rather than dismissing it as just another thing that can happen in combat, that doesn't exist with any relevance in the real world, Nate believes now, it would have survived, maybe even flourished.

They revisit the Utility Room (that now smells distinctly of sex) one last time before Nate leaves. They don't intend to do much, it's just for the chance to say goodbye in private really. Nate makes jokes about Leatherneck conjugal visits and tells Brad again that he'll be waiting and not to be a dick. "Get over yourself and send me an email every once in a while." He adds as jovially as possible. He doesn't want to weigh this moment down more than he has to, either Brad will or he won't. Nate still doesn't know for sure.

Nate finally gets his mouth on Brad's cock, determined to take this before they leave, just in case.

He hears Brad sigh, as if letting Nate go to town on his cock is a cross he has to bear in life. Brad comes in Nate's mouth and Nate takes advantage of Brad's compromised state to exact a breathless promise towards increased communication. He feels slightly guilty about it but it's not like he tried to make it an order. He ruts up against Brad, comes messily over his pants and has to change again before they move out. It feels a little perfunctory but it's all they've got for now. Nate hopes beyond hope that he's done enough for Brad to know how much better it could be.

Hafiz berates Nate the whole way back to Kabul for not spending enough time with him. So much so that Nate ends up pushing his flight back by two extra days so that he can stay at the Wahid family home to make amends. He eats fish on the last day that has clearly spent too long in the sun and ends up having diarrhea for a week when he gets home.

Before he knows it he's back in the office in D.C. He skypes Grant and Sophie daily as they move on to work at the NMA. Sophie says she preferred Leatherneck but they sound like they get on okay in Kabul. Nate catches up on work for the upcoming term and briefs his colleagues at the research institute about their intermediate findings.

He hears from Brad once, about a week and a half after he left. All the email says is, "That happened, right?"

Nate types back, "Go stand in that Utility Room and you tell me."

Nate spends about a week fantasizing about Brad alone in that room jacking himself off but he doesn't hear from Brad. Nate sets his work computer to Afghan time and starts running in the evenings. After a month Nate decides affirmative action is the key and starts sending little updates of his own. They're mostly short and sex-based. Nate enjoys them despite the lack of reciprocation. He knows, like he didn't know the first time around, that he's in this for the long haul. He spends even more time in the office and the 'workaholic' aspersions cast by his colleagues start up again in record numbers. Nate tells them he plans to take a proper holiday soon, he just hasn't decided when yet.

Two months out Nate hears from Brad again. The email reads,

Your emails are killing me. I didn't even jerk off this much in military school.
Mission here is ongoing. Won't be stateside till April.

That's another two and a half months. Nate feels more antipathy towards the Marine Corps than he thinks he ever has before. He's so annoyed he can't reply to Brad for four days. When he does write, all he can manage is, "We're 9 ½ hours apart. I run every evening at 8:30pm."

{{}}

It's almost 10 years to the day since they got back from Iraq together that Brad winds up on Nate's doorstep in D.C.

America smells great if you ask Brad. It's early - 6am early. Brad's flight landed a few hours ago and he paid one lucky taxi driver a lot of cash to get him here. The print out with Nate's address on it has been burning a hole in his pocket since he left Leatherneck.

Nate opens the door after the third ring on the bell, t-shirt on this time. Brad takes a few deep breaths and forgets to say the line about going running that he's been practicing since entering the city limits and realizing what time it was.

"Come in," Nate says, head tilted, delight flickering in his eyes.

"Thanks," Brad says as he hauls his bag back up on his shoulder and crosses the threshold. "Brought all my shit I'm afraid."

Nate shrugs, still smiling. "I can make breakfast." He offers, "Or I can show you the washing machine."

They both laugh, but it's awkward and a little stilted, lacking a routine or any experience of how this might work. Brad decides he doesn't give a shit because he's back and Nate was waiting and this feels like a beginning, like they have time to figure stuff out.

"Later," he says, "Much, much later."

{{}}

Nate hates to admit they sleep more than they fuck on Brad's first day back. Brad especially. Nate naps and showers and makes food Brad doesn't wake up for and generally drifts around the house finding excuses to go back to his bedroom and remind himself that the man in his bed is real. Brad sleeps like the dead. Nate notices how he's sprawled out on his front, one arm propped up by his face. Nate realize this is something he's never known about Brad before. He wonders if it's a constant thing or just a back-from-combat thing.

Real life means spending time together in a whole new area of operations where there is a double bed and privacy but also people to tell and someone else's life and personality to accommodate. Nate books time off work for a couple of weeks time, because he told himself that he would. Also he doesn't want this to be over before it starts because he can't get his head out of the office. Nate's jittery all day while Brad sleeps, over-thinking it. It's starting, Nate keeps thinking, he came back and we're starting something now. He's nervous like he hasn't been in years. He believes in facing things head on, whatever the issue, but this situation is too new and he feels so tentative in his desire to protect it. There's almost nothing he can do to alleviate the acute excitement he's experiencing as he waits for Brad to wake up.

Brad, rested, is someone Nate has rarely seen before. He emerges into the mid-morning sun the next day looking unnervingly casual. He sits on the balcony stretching himself out, drinks coffee and fiddles with the radio Nate has out there. He smiles a lot, almost a disturbing amount, and Nate regards him like he would a friendly-looking stray cat.

"I like your place," Brad says at one point.

"Make yourself at home," Nate replies, and then curses himself for how formal it sounds. But Brad just nods, like he's considering how best to do that. Nate wonders how he could have wanted this so much, for so long - Brad here, looking for all the world like he plans to stay - and not planned for the next phase of how they would fit together.

"So," Brad says over lunch, "Did your minions get the policy paper written yet? Gonna tell me how you're recommending the government disturb my peace next?"

Nate rolls his eyes and goes to find Brad a draft of the paper Sophie and Grant are putting together. They talk about the successes of the ANA trainings for the next hour or so and they both make an effort to skirt around their worries on the issue for the time being. Brad makes notes down the side of the page, smirking a little as he goes. In his head, Nate is already wording his apology to Sophie and Grant when they see this on Monday.

It's quieter than it's ever been when their bodies come together again in the late afternoon, they lie on their sides and Brad pushes into Nate from behind, Nate pulling at Brad's thigh, twisting his head up a little to face Brad more. Nate likes it whatever way, he's never felt like it's mattered less than with Brad, and for right now this feels so good. Decadent and slow like they haven't had before. Nate arches up against Brad, lets their bodies use each other until they're both entirely sated.

When it's over and Brad's thrown away the condom, he climbs back into the bed, long limbs laying claim to huge swathes of the mattress. Nate keeps his eyes closed and just lets himself feel the dip and bounce as Brad shuffles around, making himself comfy. They don't cuddle but after a little while Brad reaches out and takes his hand. Brad's fearlessness - the way he's always finding new ways to put himself out there in this - is now Nate's utterly tangible reality.

He says it aloud this time: "You're here." At last accepting that this is something he can have. Nate thinks the constant level of heightened excitement he's still feeling might be plain, old-fashioned happiness. Nate threads their fingers together, his answering proof, in case Brad's feeling the same way. He opens his eyes again to get one more glimpse of Brad before he falls asleep. Brad's grinning at him from what is presumably now his side of the bed. Nate realizes he's already smiling giddily back at him, and when Brad whispers, "Pretty fucking great, right?" Nate laughs and crawls into Brad's open arms, just for the hell of it.