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Tiptoe Through Our Shiny City

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When the pause had gone on long enough to be noticeable, but before it had a chance to become truly awkward, Brad went on as if he hadn't hesitated at all. "I'll probably go somewhere warm. I haven't been down to Tijuana since--"

"Brad, it's not that I don't want you here," Nate said before Brad could start talking about surfing and Mexican whores and anything else that wasn't the fact that he'd floated the idea of coming up to Cambridge in February. "I haven't seen you in a year and it'd be great having you around during midterms. I'll be done studying and I'd like having someone to make sure I don't just cram obsessively between exams. It's just...."

Nate paused and then lost all momentum.

"Shit, Nate," Brad said after a few seconds. "This has to be epic, if you can't even figure out a way to say it politely. You used to have a truly impressive ability to make the craziest bullshit sound totally reasonable."

Nate laughed a little, rubbing his forehead. "You used to be obligated to accept any bullshit I said like it sounded reasonable," he corrected. "As your--as a friend, I'm not actually allowed to order you into ambushes anymore."

"As your friend," Brad replied, with enough firm emphasis to reassure Nate, "I'm really fucking concerned about what kind of ambush you're living in the middle of if you think you'd have to order me to come sleep on your couch for a week."

Nate snorted. "I'm in no physical danger, Brad, I assure you. I've just managed to land myself in the middle of a staggeringly stupid social clusterfuck and I don't want to pull you in with me."

"Well," Brad said, and Nate could hear the sounds of him sitting back and settling in. "Sir, now you are definitely going to have to explain. Come on, tell your Staff Sergeant all about it, you know you need an NCO when you really want to get something unfucked."

"There is that," Nate agreed, steeling himself against the incoming layers of humiliation and possible rejection. Still, it had to be told, and Brad was the most sympathetic audience he was likely to find for the whole truth. "I've told you about the kids in my study group?"

Brad made an affirmative noise, so Nate didn't bother rehashing: Brad doubtless had a neat mental intel file on each of the six of them. Katie, Drew, Jenny, and Trevor had been assigned to a group project with Nate back in September, and they'd stuck together as a study group afterward, collecting Kim and Alex by subsequent friend-osmosis over the course of the fall semester. All six of the kids had come to grad school straight out of undergrad; at twenty-seven Nate was the old man in the group and the only one who'd ever lived outside a comfortable Ivy League bubble. He couldn't even feel guilty about calling them kids. He did it right to their faces often enough, though he tried not to call any of them PFC or Lance Corporal because--well.

"What I didn't tell you," Nate sighed, "is that I'm pretty sure they've all read my book."

It was funny how Brad didn't have to say a word. The silence turned ominous all by itself.

"Not like that," Nate said, before Brad could start a sentence with Sir. That was the last thing Nate wanted to hear right now. "The opposite of what you're thinking, Brad. They admire me. I mean, they're every bit the liberal dick-suck twenty-three-year-old Harvard brats you think they are, but they understand, or at least they think they do, and they try. They listen to me about this stuff, about what they don't know. They call me Cap, for fuck's sake."

Brad's silence was thoughtful, this time, and finally he said softly, "Do they realize they're your platoon?"

Nate closed his eyes and let his head fall back. "I don't think so, or at least they don't realize what that means to me. They let me take the lead on things and let me worry about them and ask for my advice, but they don't know how--how good it feels, to have people to be responsible for."

Good wasn't the right word, exactly. Necessary came closer. At some point in November--no, on exactly the tenth of November, while he wasn't attending the Marine Corps Birthday Ball, he could admit that to himself at least--Nate had finally understood that he didn't feel unmoored and alone like he had halfway through his first semester of grad school despite sending about the same amount of time socializing with classmates, and he'd realized why. He fit here, with the kids, looking after them and shepherding them through the minefield of grad school when he had barely any better understanding of the AO than they did. It was such a familiar feeling, even if it came with nearly as many anxieties as the military version. At least he didn't have to worry about getting any of them killed outside of his handful of recurring dreams.

After another little silence Brad said, "So I'm guessing things take a left turn somewhere. You're not screwing one of your subordinates, are you, Nate?"

"No," Nate sighed. "But not for lack of trying on Jenny's part. I didn't want to fuck things up and I felt so weird about the idea of dating her when I think of her--all of them--like that, but I think of you as an E-2 is probably actually worse than I think of you as a sister. So I did the completely cliché stupid thing and told her I was seeing someone. We're close enough that that wasn't going to fly on its own, so I told her I was dating a guy and it was a long distance thing and we were pretty private about it and that was why I never talked about it. I wasn't lying about the part where I told her I was bisexual. The rest, obviously, but not that."

He had to say that last part without pausing, before Brad could ask, because he had to say it all before Brad could assume it was also a lie or he was never going to say it at all.

Brad's silence was hard to gauge this time. Brad didn't fall into line with some of Nate's more wildly improbable fantasies and say me too, but he didn't hang up, either. Nate had been pretty sure he wouldn't--there had been guys everyone silently knew about in Bravo Company and Brad had never had a problem with any of them, but silently knowing about a guy you worked with was different from having your friend, former CO, and possible vacation host say it out loud.

"So you have an imaginary boyfriend who lives in Canada," Brad said finally, sounding faintly amused, and not at all offended. Or surprised. "Did you meet him on the internet?"

Nate laughed a little, more in relief than anything else. "No, I--I never said anything about him, but of course Jenny told everyone else and--Brad, I swear to God I had no idea what they were thinking until Trevor and I were the last ones left at the bar one night. He started talking about the way his family reacted when he came out, other shit he's gotten. And then he says, 'I'm just so glad to know you understand what it's like, but of course it's worse for you and your boyfriend.'"

"They all think you're dating a Marine," Brad observed.

"They all fucking think I'm dating a fucking Marine," Nate agreed. "And they admire what they imagine to be my courage in that as much as anything. They think I'm closeted to protect him and can't tell them anything about him because of DADT. And to top it all off I'm actually also pretty sure they've read my book and Evan's book and are going through every word with a fine-toothed comb trying to work out who I'm with."

"Just tell me they rated my odds above Ray's," Brad said, amused again.

"I think I could have quoted you talking about being happily married with four kids and they'd still be sure we're fucking if you show up and stay over for a week," Nate said, because that was actually the whole point here. "I could--I should just suck it up and tell them the truth, but at this point I'm not sure they'd believe it, and they've turned it into this epic fucking romance based on nothing. Having a jarhead houseguest is only going to encourage them."

"Nate," Brad said, and Nate could almost hear the mock-sorrowful headshake. "If you don't let me come to Boston because the kids will think I'm your boyfriend then the kids who think I'm your boyfriend have already won."

Nate snorted. If it were that easy--but no. Life didn't work out that neatly.

"Getting outed falsely could get you into trouble just the same," Nate pointed out, because he had to, though he doubted that Brad was unaware of that risk.

"Leaving aside the fact that I'd only be falsely outing myself to six kids who all sound like they're ready to take a bullet for you and your imaginary Canadian boyfriend," Brad said, "I don't think my CO is going to bother me with some third-hand rumor from a college kid, and if they do I'll have no problem categorically denying a completely unfounded accusation. Admit it, Nate, you're out of excuses."

Nate smiled. "Well in that case, allow me to cordially invite you to come crash on my couch, drink my beer, and put the locals in their place."

"Harvard's not going to know what hit it."

Nate opened the door to find Brad grinning at him with fresh stripes of windburn across his cheeks where the skin had been exposed between his parka and sunglasses.

"I parked my bike next to your car," Brad announced, stepping in for a quick, unhesitating hug. "It's got North Carolina plates and a base pass sticker, so I'm sure the rumor mill is getting into gear as we speak."

"As long as you didn't put our initials in a heart on my back windshield, we may be able to get by a few more days without being detected," Nate offered, returning Brad's hug exactly. "The kids are nosy, but they're no lance corporal underground."

"Officers aren't supposed to know about that shit," Brad pointed out, stepping back enough to let Nate lead the way inside.

"I have my sources," Nate said simply, smiling as Brad launched into a familiar diatribe against the wisdom of ever listening to a word Ray said.

Brad had just done fifteen hours on a motorcycle in weather that was unseasonably clear and mild for February but still punishing by any objective standard. Nate settled him on the couch with a beer and the pizza he'd been keeping warm in the oven since it arrived ten minutes ago. Brad's ETA, called in from the Massachusetts state line, had been eerily accurate given that Brad wasn't used to Boston's navigational hazards.

"Eh," Brad said, when Nate asked about that. "Didn't let it slow me down."

Nate elected not to ask for any elaborations on that, putting away his own share of pizza and beer. They drifted into the same kind of conversation they'd been having lately on the phone, easy and wide-ranging. But now Brad was right there on the other end of the couch, flushed from the wind, gestures going a little sloppy from the beer. Nate closed his eyes sometimes, just listening to Brad's voice, because then it was almost like Brad was on the phone and Nate didn't even have the option of reaching out to touch him.

At some point, after a few minutes of Nate delivering himself not into temptation, Brad laughed and said, "Am I keeping you up past your bedtime? Thought you grad students pulled all-nighters all the time."

"Coffee for all-nighters," Nate said, opening his eyes on a smile so warm and fond that it froze him in place for a moment.

Brad's smile didn't waver. "Look at you, now you're asleep with your eyes open. Go to bed, Nate. I'll be here in the morning."

"Yeah," Nate said, because he needed to go hide in his bedroom and get a handle on this--though not, with these thin apartment walls between them, a hand on anything at all. He pushed himself up to his feet, looked down for a moment at the empties and the pizza boxes, and then decided to deal with the mess, and Brad, in the morning. "Night."

"Night," Brad said softly, and Nate could feel Brad's steady gaze on him all the way to his bedroom door.

Nate had an exam at eight the next morning. Brad woke up at some point while he was getting ready, but he held his position on the couch, radiating cheerful schadenfreude while Nate downed his coffee and exchanged morning-of text messages with his study group. He had to talk Katie and Alex out of last minute panics and make sure Trevor was awake, which left him no time to take one last worried glance at his own study guide.

Nate made himself eat--peanut butter toast for protein, an apple to wash it down. His mouth was full of sticky half-melted peanut butter when Brad said, "So you never said how you wanted me to play this."

Nate looked up. The division between the kitchen and living room of his little student apartment was mostly indicated by the line where the linoleum changed to carpet. He had a perfectly clear line of sight from his tiny kitchen table to the couch were Brad was still lying, perfectly at ease.

Nate swallowed with an effort, shaking his head slightly. "Brad, you don't have to play anything. You can tell the truth if you want, I don't care. They'll think what they think."

Brad's smile widened to a wicked grin, and he sat up and said, "Why Nate," performing showy semi-outrage as he stood up, flipping his wrist in case Nate didn't catch the lisping caricature in his voice. "Are you saying you brought me all this way not to be your boyfriend?"

Brad sashayed--there was no other word for it--toward Nate as he said it, ending nose to nose with Nate; by the time he said boyfriend Nate could feel Brad's breath on his lips.

It was a game, and a joke, and a test, as surely as the ambush games the guys used to play at Camp Matilda. You couldn't let yourself get stabbed, but you couldn't refuse the game either; you had to stand your ground and take a few knife-pricks to show you were as hard as the next guy. Especially if the next guy knew you were queer.

Nate didn't flinch. "I don't believe I brought you anywhere, Brad."

Brad's playful moue dropped away into a normal smile. He tilted his head in approval, and this close it was painfully obvious to Nate that he only had to tilt his own head a little bit and they'd be kissing. Nate held perfectly still.

"Fair enough," Brad conceded, dropping back to his own voice. "You should probably get going, then."

Nate glanced at the time. "Fuck."

He shoved past Brad, and Brad's laugh stayed with him all the way to campus. The feel of Brad's body briefly pressed against his lasted longer.

Nate didn't rush through exams. There was no benefit to finishing first, so he paced himself, silently clocking each member of the study group as they finished and left. When time was called he was still in his seat, and so were Kim and Jenny. They handed in their papers and walked out together, Nate ushering the girls out ahead of him.

Nate stopped short just outside the doorway. Brad was standing in the hall, surrounded by the rest of Nate's study group. Brad looked over--he was tall enough that they didn't really obstruct his view--and his face lit up in a smile as his eyes met Nate's. "There you are."

All six of the kids turned to look from Brad to Nate, unified as a drill team.

"Brad," Nate said, and he couldn't get another word out. He wasn't controlling his expression at all, and he suspected his mingled happy surprise and exasperation were showing perfectly clearly. If he thought about how that looked, he was going to start blushing and that would clinch it.

"Surprise," Brad added, deadpan. "Sorry to steal him from you, ladies and gents, but we don't get much time together. I'm sure you understand."

"Sure!" Trevor said, stepping away from Brad to clear his path to Nate.

Nate gave in to the inevitable and jerked his chin toward the exit. Brad fell into step with him. They made it halfway down the hall before Drew reverted to all his finest frat boy instincts and yelled, "Get some!" after them.

Nate covered his face with one hand, shoulders shaking with suppressed laughter, and Brad put a hand on his shoulder to guide him toward the door. Neither of them looked back.

Nate had a paper due at midnight. It was nearly finished--he could have turned it in as it was--except that he'd come up with a slightly better angle for the whole thing while writing his policy midterm. He just had to look up one source and do a little rewriting, and he'd be all set.

Brad took the slight change of plans with equanimity and sat down on Nate's couch to watch the Olympics with the sound turned down low. Nate worked at the kitchen table, mostly not looking, intent on his paper.

Every so often, though, Brad would let out a low impressed whistle or a mutter of fucking get some and Nate would look up to find him staring at the TV in openmouthed fascination. It was usually something that involved suicidal danger and high speeds--luge, ski jumping, that kind of thing--but Nate didn't do more than glance at the TV screen. He got distracted by the look on Brad's face, utterly transported.

Then Brad looked over at him, raising his eyebrows in silent critique--don't you have work to be doing?--and Nate got back to it.

Brad woke him up before dawn and informed him that they were going snowboarding. Nate knew better than to argue. He didn't have snow pants, but he layered up as best he could; he knew not to wear jeans, at least. He could buy pants when they got there, if he decided to deal with the amount of shit Brad would give him over snivel gear.

Nate picked his battle over their mode of transportation; they weren't taking Brad's bike all the way up to Loon, and they especially weren't taking it all the way back at the end of the day. Brad gave in with sufficiently good grace that Nate was pretty sure he was being led from behind, but he was used to that. He didn't mind it at all when it was Brad on his six.

It was a good day. Nate didn't have to think of anything but making it down the hill and keeping Brad away from civilians and double black diamond trails. It was wet and cold and more masochistic than snowboarding really needed to be--no snivel gear for anybody--but Brad obviously loved going downhill very fast even more than he loved watching people on TV going downhill very fast. Nate was just glad there wasn't a public luge course.

As it was, neither of them could ever suggest an easier course than the last one the other had chosen, which meant they were on black diamonds by the middle of the afternoon. Halfway down Triple Trouble Nate wiped out spectacularly; he lay still for a few seconds catching his breath and bracing himself for shit-giving, but when he crawled up out of the snow he was greeted by the sight of Brad, three yards farther down on the other side of the trail, still in the process of slowly staggering upright.

Nate raised his eyebrows, and Brad tilted his head, conceding, if not defeat, at least the necessity of calling a halt for the day.

It was late afternoon by the time they got back to Nate's, both of them exhausted and damp and chilled even after a couple of hours steaming in the car's heat.

Nate let Brad have the first shower. He stripped down to his nearly-dry underwear and sat down on his bed; the next thing he knew he was blinking muzzily awake to Brad gently shaking his shoulder. It was dark outside his bedroom window, and for a dazed moment Nate thought he'd started the day over and had the whole excursion with Brad to look forward to again. Brad looked startled for an instant at the way Nate smiled up at him, and then he smiled wholeheartedly back.

Thursday, Nate and his study group's last day of exams, was a double-header. They ate lunch together at the food court in the Garage in between, splitting up into the usual pairs to get Indian or Thai or pizza before they regrouped. The after-action on the morning's exam died down once they all had food in front of them. Nate could feel all their thoughts turning toward the last exam, and the weekend of freedom which would follow it; he couldn't help thinking ahead himself. He had three more days with Brad before he had to leave at ass o'clock Sunday morning to get home for a decent night's sleep before he was back on base Monday morning.

They'd somehow gotten into an argument about pissing, and therefore marksmanship, this morning. Brad had sounded pretty serious by the end of it about taking Nate to a gun range to see how his aim had held up through two and a half years of civilian life. Nate would have been more worried about it if he didn't go down there on his own every few months to blow off steam and keep in practice. He doubted he had any hope of matching Brad's performance, but at least he wouldn't embarrass himself.


Nate looked up and realized that the kids were all staring at him. They looked amused and knowing to varying degrees, so he had a pretty good idea what kind of distracted he'd seemed to be. He gave them back a sheepish smile. It wasn't like they were wrong--not about Nate, not really.

"We were just saying," Jenny said. "Instead of going to the B Side tonight for the end of exams, I was thinking everybody could come over to my place. You could bring Brad, and it would be just us, so you guys wouldn't have to, you know. Worry about anything."

Some small motion made Nate look toward Trevor, who grinned and waggled his phone. "I invited Brad, now you can't say no."

Nate choked back his instinctive response to the blithe insubordination. He said mildly, "Don't go over my head like that, it's not going to get you what you want."

Trevor pouted, and the rest of the kids started to protest, and then Trevor's phone chimed. Everyone looked toward it, and Trevor, reading the message, let out a startled, "Ha!" and passed the phone to Nate.

Don't go over Nate's head like that. I'm not giving an answer without talking to him.

Nate just nodded calmly and passed the phone back to Trevor, who showed it to the rest of the table.

"Shit," Drew said, impressed. "Cap doesn't just have a boyfriend, he's fucking married."

"Please just promise me that we are going to get absolutely trashed somewhere," Katie interrupted, returning to her chicken korma.

"I assure you," Nate said solemnly.

He could feel them watching for it, but he didn't pull out his own phone until they'd all gotten seated for their next exam. The truth was, he didn't really have to discuss anything with Brad. Going to Jenny's would mean playing boyfriends in earnest, at close quarters, for an extended period, while drinking; it was risky, but Brad would back him through it if Nate chose to undertake the risk.

Nate wanted to; he could see how eager the kids all were to really get a chance to meet Brad. They probably wanted to vet him, to be sure he was going to keep Nate happy. It was so well-intentioned that it made Nate feel even worse about lying to them, but he couldn't bear to deny them the pleasure, even if it would probably make things that much more complicated when he finally told them that he and Brad had broken up, or they found out the truth.

He wanted to. He was pretty sure they could pull it off. And he knew Brad would be itching to do something stupid and risky; it had been nearly twenty-four hours since he'd risked breaking his neck.

He texted Brad Jenny's address and their ETA and then turned his phone off and tucked it into his bag.

They hit Kappy's to stock up for the night on the way back to Jenny's. By the time they got to her place, Katie and Kim were each halfway through a beer, and they raced ahead with Jenny when they saw Brad waiting on the doorstep. Nate hung back, a six pack in each hand, watching Brad greet the kids; he doubted they realized that that was the same smile Brad used to charm officers' wives.

They all seemed charmed, but none of them actually tried to hug him or anything, just tumbling past him through the door once Jenny got it open. Nate hesitated before the doorway when Brad would have ushered him in, too, meeting his eyes to try to get a read on where Brad was with this.

Brad leaned in--Nate was suddenly conscious of having both hands occupied--and didn't stop until he'd brushed a light, quick kiss across Nate's mouth. His fingers tangled with Nate's as he took one of the six-packs, and then he turned Nate to the doorway. Nate was immediately greeted with the sight of Katie and Alex giving them almost the same fond look; he thought he managed to smile appropriately in response.

Brad gave him a gentle shove, and Nate went where Brad had pointed him, leading Brad into the apartment and then into the kitchen, intent on getting himself a drink as quickly as possible. Brad had just given him not only permission, but an irresistible dare to play this out as far as he cared to; Nate's good intentions about staying responsibly sober were no longer suited to the tactical situation before him.

The kids didn't launch into an immediate interrogation of Brad, electing to greet him and then mostly pretend like they weren't ravenously curious to know all about him and Nate. That made it easier on the surface, but Nate knew the ambush was coming, and he hoped Brad was equally on guard. Nate hadn't managed to finish his first beer or be alone in a room with Brad before after-action on their last exam turned to yet another iteration of Alex, Kim, and Drew arguing about the comparative economic trajectories of the BRIC countries; when Drew started trying to drag in the MINT countries in a totally illogical way Nate gave up and waded in to referee.

Refereeing turned to holding down his own corner of the debate at some point, and Nate was well into his third beer before he realized that Brad was in the kitchen with Jenny, Trevor, and Katie. He lost the thread of his argument completely--which no one minded, because Kim and Drew had wound down to bickering over minutiae neither of them really cared about while Alex stirred the pot on both sides just to keep them going. Nate shook his head and waved his bottle in a vague gesture of tapping out, and walked over to the kitchen doorway to look in on Brad.

He was leaning against the counter with the other three arrayed around him--cornering him, theoretically, but they might as well have all been sitting at his knee, by the body language. Nate meant to say something so he could gauge whether--how badly--Brad wanted to bug out and escape the attentions of these twenty-three-year-old Harvard kids, but then he heard Katie say in an only slightly slurring sympathetic voice, "I can't imagine what it's like."

Nate froze, wondering if one of them was about to--or already had--asked Brad did you ever kill anybody over there?

Brad's expression was serious but not hard. Whatever they were asking, he wasn't angry or on the defensive. Nate leaned against the door jamb and waited for Brad's answer.

"It fucks with your head more than you think it will," Brad said, looking down at the beer in his hands. "You think you know what you're getting into. You know the rules. Don't ask. Don't tell. That makes it sound simple."

Nate stopped breathing and stared, transfixed, at Brad, who didn't sound at all like he was lying or making things up to put on a good show for the kids. Brad, who could not possibly fail to know that Nate was standing in the doorway.

"The thing is, you don't get through boot camp--I mean you don't get through the first hour of boot camp--without getting called a faggot and a cocksucker and--worse, at great and creative length. And it doesn't let up, not ever. You can never forget what you're not telling, because you're hearing it and saying it right back all the time, every day. You can never forget that you're lying, and that the worst thing everyone says about you, which they're saying fucking constantly, is actually true. You're a hard motherfucking bastard, a better recon Marine than almost anyone you know, but still. You're also a fag.

"And every Marine, I think, knows about some Marine somewhere in his unit who's gay--or bi, or whatever--and they honestly mostly don't give a fuck. But the only way you can show support is to lie right along with him, to just--"

Brad waved his beer bottle as though wiping something away.

"Erase it. Erase what you know, like it's not even there. Don't know it. And that's--that really--you try to erase what you know about yourself, too. But you can't. It's always there. You always find yourself wanting--"

Brad's eyes landed on Nate inevitably, like the glance was the next word in the sentence. The damning conclusion.

Nate held his gaze steadily, not looking away, not letting the confession be waved off.

"But you guys," Trevor said, startling Nate back to the world of other people. "You knew about each other, at least?"

Nate couldn't help raising a hand to scrub at his own hair, half-hiding his face, because there was no way he couldn't react to that. He fucking hadn't, not until right fucking now, Jesus.

"No," Brad said simply. "No idea. Some guys pull it off. I would never have had a fucking clue about Nate if he hadn't just upped and told me one day, out of nowhere. He had no idea that I was in the same boat, he just came the fuck out to me because he had the balls to throw that out there."

Nate looked up again, and there was no mockery in Brad's gaze, nothing but the same warmth there had always been. It hadn't ever meant quite what Nate thought it did. It had always been what Nate wanted, and not a fantasy at all.

"And then what?" Jenny asked. "What happened after he told you?"

"Oh," Brad said, keeping his eyes steady on Nate's but smiling an impossibly sunny smile. "I'd better not tell that story. It's private."

Nate couldn't help smiling back when Brad looked at him like that, no matter what it had cost to get here.

Nate could feel the kids' attention swing to him in unison. He didn't actually look away from Brad to gauge their expressions; what the kids thought of this was the least important thing going on in the room right now.

"Speaking of," Nate said, and ended the sentence there.

Brad nodded and set his beer down with a still-mostly-full heavy clunk. "I'll grab my coat."

They caught a lot of cheerfully knowing looks, but no one really tried to impede them; sooner than he was quite ready to be, Nate was walking alone with Brad, in the uncertain darkness of a residential street in Cambridge. His own apartment was only a few blocks from Jenny's.

They walked side by side in silence, as effortlessly in step as ever. Nate tried to review the last few days--the last three and a half years in light of what Brad had just said, and tried also to strategize what might be coming next. His thoughts mostly just circled around and around the fact of Brad standing there telling strangers that Nate had been brave for coming out to Brad.

Brad stepped back to take his six while Nate unlocked the door to his building and then to his apartment. Nate led Brad inside, waited until Brad had locked the door behind them, and then turned and backed him up against it. Brad gave up his ground, letting Nate press close without the defense of a joke or a test between them. Nate reached up cautiously to set one hand on Brad's cheek, and Brad tilted his head into the touch, eyes steady on Nate's.

"I'm sorry," Nate said, because that had to be said first. "If I'd known I'd never have asked you to do that."

"If you'd known you could have told Jenny your boyfriend was the jealous type and could kill her with his bare hands."

"You're not," Nate pointed out, smiling slightly, "and you wouldn't. And I'd never have told her anything about you."

Brad's mouth turned up on one side. "Thank you."

"I'd tell you not to mention it," Nate said. "But you won't."

"You never know, sir," Brad said as his smile widened. "I might surprise you."

Nate gave up and kissed him, and Brad's arms finally closed around him, holding on tight.