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the geometry of life: a story in two parts

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i. don't shit where you eat

 

This is the story of two men. The one who stayed and the one who left.

*

"Are you a cat person, sir?"

Ray's been circling the LT for the last minute — like a scrawny lion eyeing up an antelope, only in this case Brad would put his money on the antelope.

The LT tilts his head in thought for maybe a second, then gives a confident, "No." He doesn't seem puzzled or even surprised by the question. He turns to leave the tent.

Ray pounces again before the LT can take a full step. "So, would you say you don't like cats? You can admit it," he adds, bright-eyed and devious.

"I wouldn't go so far as to say I actively dislike them, Corporal. I simply don't feel any desire to own one." This time, he does escape, loping away just like an antelope.

Brad doesn't have it so lucky. There's nowhere to escape to. He tries closing his eyes, but that doesn't deter Ray who simply kicks his rack repeatedly until Brad opens them again. Brad revises his analogy; Ray's more of a scrappy dog than a lion. The sort that doesn't give a fuck that it's half the size of its prey, just gets its teeth in and hangs on.

"See, Brad," he says in the sort of stage whisper that easily carries across the tent. "I fucking told you the LT doesn't like pussy."

"It hasn't crossed your pea-sized, inbred, special-school brain that our platoon leader took your question literally and simply expressed his feelings about little furry pets?"

"No way, homes. The LT's a smart motherfucker. He's all educated and shit, so he knew exactly what I meant, and he knew you were listening. It was his way of letting the Iceman know he's not into trim."

"And is there any particular reason you think I would be interested in that?" Brad asks quietly, lifting his head to look straight at Ray.

Ray stares back for a few seconds. "No, no reason at all."

Brad closes his eyes again and pictures the area leading up to the Euphrates and their target bridge. He focuses on the approach — it'll be dark, hopefully, so he visualizes it in the flat green light of NVGs. There's a small hut on the left 300 yards before the bridge — they'll need eyes on that before they advance. There's a drop on the right side of the road, sharp enough to fuck up a Humvee if they stray off course. Ray won't — Brad has confidence in him, and the rest will follow his line. Brad knows every yard of the approach, but he still repeats the mental journey every evening without fail, imprinting it so firmly in his mind it won't slip from his grasp no matter what happens. It's preparation that makes Brad so confident, keeps him cool under fire. Keeps him from the sort of distractions that he doesn't need.

*

The days blur, one into the next. Afterwards he remembers the tedium mostly. The waiting.

And the dust.

There's always dust.

*

"So, um," Reporter says. Brad hopes he's more eloquent on paper than he is in person. He seems unable to avoid stuttering slightly every time he opens his mouth. Brad isn't certain if it's a belated sense of the danger of his situation, a reaction to the absurdly high testosterone levels in Bravo's tent, or his normal state.

"Fuck, man, spit it out. If there's a question in there. Is there?" Ray asks. He's sitting on his rack, squinting over a soldering iron.

Reporter moves a bare chessboard out of the way and sits down on a box of rations next to Brad and Ray. "Well," he says, like he's not sure where he's going with his question. This is the guy LT has put in Brad's Humvee. It's going to be a long ride to Baghdad. "I was just wondering. Is there anywhere I could get some rat poison? Or a trap or something?"

Ray snorts and clips his hand with the soldering iron. "Fuck," he says, and sticks his finger in his mouth.

Brad stares at his laptop for a few seconds before looking up at Reporter. It helps him avoid the indignity of snorting.

"I'm aware that Corporal Person can be annoying, but rat poison is probably going too far," Brad says. "I understand the temptation, believe me, but he's a damn fine RTO, and our driver, so we need him alive. On the other hand, anything that silences him is fair game."

Ray takes his finger out of his mouth. "Hey! That's cold!"

"There are rats," Reporter says, leaning forward like he doesn't want the rest of the tent to hear the conversation. It's too late for that. Marines are nosy motherfuckers.

Brad nods in acknowledgement of the obvious. "Yes, there are."

"Large ones." Reporter holds his hands out wide like a fisherman. If there were rats that big they'd be hunting them for dinner.

Poke laughs and lets go of the practice chokehold he has on Redman. He moves in to lean on Reporter's shoulder. "These little things? Shit, dawg, these are fucking midget rats compared to the ones we used to get back home. Pickings ain't rich enough 'round here."

"Marines'll eat just about anything," Redman says. "That don't leave much for the rats."

Reporter shudders faintly. "But surely we should do something about them?" he asks. He's got a real audience now, Chaffin and Gabe crowding behind Redman, and even T looking up from his book for a moment before shaking his head and carrying on reading. Smart man.

"Fuck no." Chaffin sounds like someone's just trash-talked his mother. Again.

"Why not?" Trust the Reporter to ask a dumb question like that.

"Because, fucknuts, it'll bring bad luck. Even the most boot-fucked Marine knows that."

Brad has to give Reporter respect for persistence. "But don't they, you know, have fleas? And carry disease?" he asks. "I mean, wouldn't it'd be better luck just to get rid of them?"

Chaffin shakes his head in dismay. Ray grins at Brad and leans forward like he's watching a prize fight.

Eric's been idling on the sidelines, but now he jumps in. "Reporter, listen carefully. In fact, write this down." Eric pauses, and Reporter goes oh and pulls out his notebook and a pencil. Eric carries on. "Marines are not like civilians, or Army, or any other fucking pussy wimps that you might encounter in the course of your life. No fucking fleas or rats are ever gonna bring a motherfucking Marine down. You got that?"

Reporter nods.

Lilley punches the air. "You fucking tell it, brah."

"Anyway, we'll need them later," Eric adds, and Brad pays more attention, curious to learn what bullshit he's going to throw at the reporter.

"Need them for what?" Reporter asks.

"Early warning system." Eric nods like it's obvious. Reporter looks blank and shrugs his shoulders helplessly. "Oh, man, what'd they teach you? Early warning for gas attacks, of course. Rat starts acting all weird-like, or keels over, we go for our gas masks."

"But surely the alert would sound before that?" At least Reporter looks reasonably suspicious.

"That's what The Man wants you to believe," Poke says, straight-faced.

There's a lot The Man wants them to believe. That they're doing the right thing. That they have a purpose. That the rules all make sense.

They know it's bullshit, but they do what they're told and follow the rules — well, most of them — and do their job anyway. It's what they're trained to do, and they're damn well going to do it.

It doesn't do any good dwelling on the degree of bullshit being piled on them.

That's just one of the many things it doesn't do to dwell on.

*

Even at Mathilda, where tedium is routine, there are moments that stand out. That he can remember word for word afterwards. Some even make him smile.

*

Brad isn't like Rudy. He doesn't believe in running in the heat of the day in full gear unless he has to. He gets up early for his run, early enough that there are only a handful of others running the perimeter.

The LT's one of them today. They fall into step easily, Brad shortening his stride a fraction to match Nate's pace. The fence stretches away on their left, painting crisscross shadows on them as they run. The sun is still huge and low on the horizon.

They don't talk much. They never have, not from day one. They somehow fell into an easy pattern of glances that each could interpret without ever having to explain themselves, so that words almost felt like an optional extra. Brad's never had this easy a rapport before, not even with Ray or Poke, and he's known them for years.

Sometimes, he thinks it's too easy, too comfortable. That it feels too right.

Anything that feels too right is dangerous. Any Marine knows that.

They turn the corner at the far end of the camp. There's welcome shade ahead. Even this early it's hot. "I've got permission for a training exercise using live ammo," the LT huffs.

The men are going to fucking love that. Nothing beats the real thing.

"D'you want to tell them?" the LT offers. It's a gift. Marines are a strange group when it comes to giving credit — they're as likely to lavish praise on the newsgiver as the organizer.

"I'll leave it to you," Brad says, and ups the pace a little for the home stretch. The LT keeps pace with him until he peels off to the junior officers' tent, leaving Brad to run the last few yards on his own. Not long enough to start thinking. That's good. Brad doesn't need thinking time. Thinking's dangerous.

*

There are lists of dangers. Official ones that include local whores — even though they're in a camp in the middle of Buttfuck, Nowhere — and non-potable water. Obvious ones, because some dumb fucks need to be reminded about land mines and taking proper care of their weapons.

And then there are the dangers that don't make the lists. They're the only ones that ever cause Brad to lose sleep.

*

For his eighth birthday, Brad's parents gave him a cat. He called her Smokey. She was gray, with blue eyes, just like Brad's, and she had a disdainful look about her that Brad stood in front of the mirror copying.

She stayed for a week, and then ran away in the night after he left his bedroom window cracked open. His parents offered to get him a replacement, but that didn't seem right to Brad. She was his gift, and she didn't want to stay, so getting a different cat would feel like cheating somehow. Brad never cheated.

He only cried about her once, a month after she'd run away, when he finally accepted that she was never coming back. He sat with his head down at breakfast the next morning to hide his red eyes and swore blind he hadn't been crying when his mom asked him. It wasn't the first time he'd lied to her — in Brad's eyes, lying was acceptable; cheating wasn't.

There's a stray cat that hangs around the mess tent. It slinks in and out, sometimes getting a kick, sometimes scraps. It gets an entire fishcake from Lilley once — Poke gives him a lecture on wasting Corps supplies. Brad thinks the lecture's tongue-in-cheek, but you can't always tell with Poke.

The cat's pale and dusty-looking with matted fur under its chin. It's nothing like Smokey.

"What do you think this is, brother?" Rudy asks, forking a piece of grayish meat and examining it before sticking it in his mouth.

Doc gives it a casual glance. "Just eat it," he says.

Rudy swallows and scopes up a forkful of grayish mashed potatoes. All the food is gray. It probably offends Rudy's sensibilities.

"Could be cat," Pappy says. "Haven't seen the little bugger around in a few days."

Brad takes a mouthful and chews. It's tasteless. "It's good," he lies. Rudy stares at him, eyebrow raised, but doesn't call him on it.

*

"Ah, Brad." It's Captain America. Brad halts. He has a nearly new porn mag under his arm and a toilet roll in his hand, and he's heading towards the latrines. He has the start of a hard-on just thinking about getting off. No decent officer would interrupt a Marine carrying a porn mag and toilet roll, outside of an emergency. But then, this is Captain America. "Have you seen Eric?" the Captain asks.

Not an emergency. Brad attempts to tone down his automatic grimace. "I believe he's gone to the PX. Sir," he tags on like an afterthought.

Captain America has a wad of papers in his hands. Brad resists the urge to edge away, although the inevitable bullshit on them might be catching.

"Ah, well, never mind then. I'll catch up with him later."

"Sir," Brad says, and about turns back to his tent, his hard-on wilted. He's not going to waste a new picture on a half-hearted jack, which is all he'd manage now. Incompetent officers do that to him.

He tries not to think about the effect competent ones have on him. One particular competent one. No point going there. Not even for the sake of a good jack.

He catches up with Eric later. Bravo Three are all livid. It's obvious by the sharpness of their sparring. Doc's stitching a gash on Darnold's arm and giving him a waste-of-breath lecture, and Raby has Jarvis in a headlock that makes Brad wince. No one's holding back this evening. It doesn't take a genius to guess the cause.

"Have you seen this?" Eric waves a white A4 sheet at him. There are more on the floor, most with boot marks on them. There's also one stuck to a tent pole, a limp dick drawn on it in red sharpie, hairy balls added in black.

"From your fearless leader?"

"He's only gone and written a fucking SOP for our flak jackets," Eric says. He bites the words out like he can barely believe them.

"Apparently a platoon of experienced Recon Marines, most of whom have seen active service, can't be trusted to know how to pack our own flak jackets," Redman elaborates. "We need a superior officer to tell us how to pack them, what to carry, and where to put it."

"You know where he can fucking well put this," Eric says. He screws up the paper and raises his closed fist in the air, the action unmistakable.

*

Brad's heading back from the shitter when he runs into the LT rounding the NCO's tent. The LT has a sheaf of papers under his arm.

"Please tell me those aren't SOPs for our flak jackets," Brad says.

The LT looks as though he has an answer for that, but he bites his lip and takes a deep breath. Brad wonders how he copes with the idiocy of his peers, how often he has to bite words back.

The LT hands him the papers. "I can assure you I won't be writing SOPs for your flak jackets. I have more than enough faith in my men's ability to get dressed in the morning."

He looks faintly guilty, as though even that was too much criticism of his fellow officer, so Brad doesn't respond, simply skims the top sheet. It's a list of cultural details, dos and don'ts, some simple phrases to learn. Little details that might make all the difference with the locals. Make Bravo into saviors rather than conquerors. Brad nods. "I'll hand these out to the men."

"Good." The LT turns off towards his tent, then pauses. "Oh, and Brad?"

"Yes?"

"Grooming standard." The LT points to Brad's pants, hanging outside his boots. He turns away again, but not before Brad catches the beginning of a smirk. Brad can't help smiling himself as he bends down and tucks his pants in.

*

It's that wicked grin Brad always sees whenever he hears the words grooming standard. Not Sixta glaring or even Sixta winking at Mike that one time.

He thinks, afterwards, that was the moment he let down his guard.

*

They've been ready to leave for three hours now. Brad is calm. Ray is fidgeting beside him. Reporter is beginning to learn that war is mostly about waiting. Trombley's dozing on and off, and Garza's a rock-solid silent presence.

"We don't have a rat, do we?" Reporter says from the back seat.

"No," Brad says. "There's no rat."

Ray turns round to him. "No room, homes. Had to squeeze Garza's fat ass in, so no rat for us. Better hope the alert's sounded in time for a gas attack because we are shit out of early warning systems, dude. Though we could get Poke to radio us if their rat keels over. That'd be better than nothing."

"We could've eaten it when things got rough," Garza says. "When I was a kid, growing up in Mexico—"

"We don't want to hear your childhood sob-stories," Brad interrupts. He doesn't want to hear a recipe for Mexican fried rat. He's hungry.

"So, um, we've got enough rations, haven't we?" At least Reporter's smart enough to sound nervous, even if he is dumb enough to be riding with them.

"Sure we have," Ray says, grinning maniacally. "Sure we've got plenty of rations, like we've got plenty of batteries and plenty of gun lube and really, really smart officers who never talk shit out of their ass."

"The Corps likes us lean and hungry. We're meaner that way," Garza says.

"Hey, we could always eat the Reporter." Trombley sounds like he's ready to find out what a pussy civilian journalist tastes like.

There are footsteps coming up alongside them. The LT.

"That won't be necessary." The LT leans in Brad's window and smiles back at Wright. "I can assure you the Corps won't be resorting to cannibalism. You're in good hands here, the best," he tells him, then turns to Brad. "We're still waiting for the translator, but be ready to go the second he's stowed away."

Brad nods and gets ready for another few hours of waiting in a tin can in the desert heat.

*

"I hear Alpha had a casualty," Brad says quietly, nodding towards Patterson. Patterson's munching Skittles, sharing them with Barrett. They both look relaxed. Everyone's waiting for Godfather, who's leaning against his victor, rasping into the phone. Brad can't hear more than snatches of the conversation, but he looks pissed.

"Dumb motherfucker, what the hell was he thinking, setting his pubes on fire?" Poke says. "Why are we all about dicks? It's so fucking homoerotic, dawg. Fucking moron couldn't just keep it in his pants?"

The LT grins. He's heard the story. Brad can feel his amusement, a momentary relaxing of tension.

Mike takes a swig of water. "Guess he won't be beating off for a while."

Everyone grins. Brad doesn't. Brad just wants the briefing to be over so he can get out of here, get away from a seat where he's thigh-to-thigh with his platoon leader. Brad's dick's all too aware of the proximity, and his brain is screaming danger close.

Brad isn't some kind of happy hippy, Kumbaya-singing, rainbow flag-waving gay. He just likes getting his dick sucked, and if a guy can do the job as well as or better than a woman, that's fine by him and his dick. When it comes to sticking his dick in an ass, he's always preferred a nicely rounded one, with a pair of tits to go with it, but if it's tight and willing, he's okay. That's all he needs. He keeps his life simple, free from complications, and that's the way that suits him. Simple doesn't screw you over, and Brad appreciates not being screwed over.

Homoerotic thoughts about his platoon leader aren't simple, and they sure as hell aren't free from complications. Brad needs to police his brain and his dick and whatever other fucking part of him is going to betray him. He has no intention of being screwed over again.

Godfather turns to them. "Gentlemen, Ferrando is unimpressed." Everyone sits or stands a fraction straighter. Brad feels the tension seeping back into the LT.

Brad looks dead ahead, face neutral.

*

Brad might be a stone-cold Marine Corps killer, but he doesn't live purely to fight. He's not spoiling for it like Trombley and Ray, both so goddamn eager to pop their cherries. Doesn't stop Brad from feeling the biggest fucking high ever after they get through Al Gharraf though.

All his men are okay.

"I'm good," they call, and when Brad checks on Reporter, he's fine. Quiet and big-eyed and he's possibly shit his pants, but he's okay.

Mission accomplished. "Holy shit!" Brad says. "We were fucking lit up."

"Fucking crazy, dude," Ray says, and they both laugh.

*

"The cradle of civilization, birthplace of man," the LT says, sweeping his arm across the horizon. He sounds awed, like a schoolboy getting his first titty sighting.

The sky is low, a brooding gray. It's hard to tell where it ends. It looks more like hell than paradise.

"Not exactly a modern Eden," Brad says. They're lying on a berm, watching the distant bombing of a hamlet too small to have a name on Brad's map. The approaching night swallows up the color, everything but the flashes of red as each bomb finds a target. "Hard to imagine it as a paradise."

"I don't know," LT says. Brad watches him out of the corner of his eye. Nate doesn't react to the scrutiny.

"You can look at this," Brad asks, "and picture it as some kind of promised land?"

Nate puts his binoculars down. "Paradise is about more than just beauty or perfection. You should never forget the serpent." It sounds like a warning. Brad spares him another glance, but his expression is as blank as Brad's. Brad can't read him.

"Now there's a motto to live by. Never forget the serpent." Brad thinks about the serpent, and he thinks about temptation. He knows temptation.

"Trouble is," Nate says quietly, barely loud enough for Brad to hear, "it's not just their bite that's dangerous." Maybe Nate knows temptation too.

The air's unusually still for the time of day. Still and heavy. It makes the noise of the camp sound more distant than it is. It feels as dangerous as a serpent, lying here, silent, but Brad doesn't move.

The LT does. He stands up, brushing the dust off his pants. "Try to make sure everyone gets an hour or two's sleep tonight," he says, looking over the land and not at Brad, and leaves.

*

Everybody leaves. It's a fact of life. Brad gets the measure of people pretty quickly. Knows those who will leave soon, and those who will last a little longer. He's never met anyone he's certain will stay.

Well, apart from Ray, but that's just sheer perverseness on Ray's part.

*

The TL meeting's over, but no one's moved. It's hot, hotter than it's been since they landed here, and the sweat's rolling down Brad's back, pooling around his balls. He'll summon the energy to do something when he has to. For now, standing in the shade of the command Humvee is as good a place to stay as any. He takes a swig of water. He's used to the taste now, metallic and stale.

Mike spits, then pulls out his tin of Copenhagen. He sticks a wad under his lip. "You ever think we'll come back? Revisit the scene?"

"What, part of the next wave? Fighting the same fight all over again? Probably," Brad says. This war isn't going to be won quickly, whatever Command tells them.

"No." Mike shakes his head. "Come back as tourists, once the war's over. See what the country's like when no one's shootin' at us."

Poke unzips and takes a leak. "Seriously, dawg? What the fuck's wrong with Disney World?"

Mike laughs. He's got kids. He's probably been to fucking Disney World. And Brad knows Poke has. He claims he hated every minute, but there's a photo on his living room wall that tells a different story. Poke has Isabella on his shoulders and Maria leaning against him. Maria's holding a large stuffed kangaroo, and Poke's wearing Mickey Mouse ears and a genuine smile. No one is allowed to talk shit about the picture.

The LT folds up his map. "I hope I get a chance to come back someday. Under different circumstances. Maybe not as a tourist, exactly. I'd like to see the real Iraq, get to know the people. See how we did. Find out if we actually helped or if we fucked them up."

Brad can't imagine being here without his M4 under his arm. Without a uniform. But then he's just an NCO, and Nate Fick's a man with a vision. In ten years time, Brad will still be following orders, and Nate will probably be running the country. Brad will be here, the man he is, and Nate will have moved on. It doesn't do to forget that.

"I'm betting on 'fucked them up'," Brad says.

*

This is why Brad doesn't have expectations. Shouldn't have any.

First he expected better of himself. He fucked up, and Trombley shot a kid. There are no excuses for Brad. He deserves everything Doc said, and more.

And then he expected better of the LT. He expected him to fucking fight for them to recon that bridge, to make it happen somehow, anyhow. To send them out against orders if that's what it took. Instead they rolled into an ambush, Pappy and Stafford got hit, and Fick rounded off a glorious night with a fucking bullshit moto speech about petting a burning dog.

Brad doesn't get angry. He doesn't need to be in a state of fury to fight. He's better calm and focused. But right now, he's so fucking angry he wants to do some damage. He wants to hurt something.

*

"We step off in thirty minutes. Our route is taking us through the center of Muwaffaqiyah, the town we almost made it to last night," LT says.

It's Lovell who cuts through the painful silence and asks the obvious. "But isn't the bridge damaged, sir?"

"There's an alternate route."

Brad doesn't ask if Fick knew beforehand, or if that's intel he's just been given. He doesn't ask what the hell they were doing the night before. He doesn't ask why Pappy and Stafford got shot. None of it matters. It's all fucking pointless.

"I think we can take it from here, sir," he says, effectively dismissing the LT. He's pushing it, and he knows it, but he's not the only one not asking any of those questions right now.

He hands out map sheets, daring anyone to speak up.

No one does.

*

"I heard you hate peanut butter." The LT throws two small packets at Brad. A prized jalapeño and cheese spread and crackers. There's tiny neat printing in black marker along the edge of one packet. I'm sorry, it says.

Brad puts the packets down next to his cleaning rag and reassembles his M4. He knew anyway. The LT didn't have to say or do anything. It doesn't make Brad any less pissed though. Which is fucking unfair, and Brad knows that, knows he's holding Fick up to ridiculously high standards, perfect standards, and that getting pissed at him because for once, he didn't live up to them is foolish. But Brad just can't seem to stop himself.

Nate stares into the distance as he unpeels a Tootsie Roll. "Who was it that said, 'It's easier to forgive an enemy than it is to forgive a friend'?"

Brad shrugs. He doesn't know. He doesn't know that they are even friends, or that they can be friends, no matter that they feel like more. Far more.

Friendship and feelings are on Brad's personal danger list.

Not that recognizing danger is helping him. He's never felt more lost in his life, and there's no map. He spreads a cracker and eats it noisily. It covers the silence.

*

"What exactly are those reprobates cooking, sir?" Brad asks, falling into step beside the LT. It's the first time he's initiated non-essential conversation since Muwaffaqiyah. He's not angry anymore. There doesn't seem to be any point in staying angry. Not with the wrong person.

"I find 'don't ask, don't tell' has a wide variety of applications. Not least when it comes to Stafford's cooking." There's a hint of a grin visible, the first Brad's seen in days. Brad hasn't felt much like smiling either, but he can fake it as well as anyone.

"Trombley's convinced it's dog."

"I thought I saw him eating a piece earlier? Did he decide it was dog before or after tasting it?"

"Before. It was his revenge against dogs."

"Do I want to know what he has against dogs?"

"Childhood trauma," Brad says, not explaining further.

"Just try to make sure he doesn't kill anyone's pet. Wouldn't help foster good relations with the locals."

"Will do," Brad promises, wheeling away towards his vehicle.

*

They're clearing a field on the edge of town. It's a goddamn soccer field, so much like one back home that Brad can almost picture the soccer moms along the side, watching their precious tubby little darlings dribbling the ball up and down the field.

Officially it's just him, Trombley and Hasser, but Doc's come along. "For the exercise," he says. Sick of sitting on his ass while his muscles rot along with his feet — they all are.

The goal posts are still standing at one end, and the cracked white of the boundary lines is just visible through the straggly browning grass. Broken remnants of wood along the sides were probably benches before they got turned into kindling earlier during a largely one-sided firefight. There's a dug-out bookended by two dead Iraqis where the second goal should be.

"Hey, wonder if anyone's got a soccer ball. We've got Hajji goalposts." Trombley mimes kicking a ball at them.

"Check that they're dead first," Brad snaps. He shouldn't have to remind Trombley of something that basic. Brad provides cover while Hasser kicks them over onto their backs. They're not faking. One's missing half his head.

There's a yelp and a curse. A scruffy mutt hangs onto Hasser's leg by its teeth, managing to growl even with a mouthful of pant-leg. It's a skinny little thing, ugly with its lopsided patchwork coloring, but it's determined — it takes Hasser half a minute to shake it off.

"Little fucker," Hasser says, kicking it away.

"Don't shoot it, Trombley," Brad says. He can see Trombley out of the corner of his eye, lowering his weapon reluctantly.

"Did it draw blood?" Doc asks, jogging over from examining a bundle of rags on the sidelines.

Hasser shakes his head. "Nah, I'm fine, Doc. Say, MOPP suits are good for something after all," he says, grinning. "It bit right through, but the pants are so baggy it missed my leg. Typical fucking Hajji, can't hit a target even when it's right on it."

Brad doesn't mention that means Walt's MOPP suit isn't going to be any use in a chemical attack now. There's nothing they can do about it. He pulls out a packet of crackers and rips them open.

"Loyal little fucker," he says. Pretty dumb, too, but he can't help admiring it. There's something to be said for mindless loyalty. Beats the opposite — perhaps Brad ought to get himself a dog sometime. When he's done with missions. Something to come home to that won't be off and out at the first chance of something better.

He throws the dog a cracker. It circles towards it warily, then pounces on it. Brad throws it another, further from the dead Hajji. The dog looks, edges an inch towards it but no further.

They leave it there, keeping watch over the dead body.

*

There are a bunch of goddamn POGs by the side of the road, a row of them pissing and singing.

"I was like, good gracious ass is bodacious
Uh, flirtatious, tryin' to show patience
Lookin' for the right time to shoot my steam (you know)
Waitin' for the right time to flash them keys."

They're loud and out of tune.

"This place is a fucking zoo," Brad says.

"This is Hitman Two. All Hitman Two Victors, branch right in two hundred meters."

"This is Hitman Two One. Solid copy," Brad says into his radio. "Next right," he tells Ray. They're going to be on their own again. Brad can't fucking wait.

"Life's a fucking zoo. You gotta know that by now, homes." Ray taps his fingers on the steering wheel and starts humming under his breath. Brad recognizes the rhythm.

"Don't fucking sing POG songs, Ray," Brad says. His skin feels too tight, hot and dry and itchy. The Humvee's too small.

Ray shakes his head. "Shit, Brad, that's not in the rules. You can't go changing the rules. And I wasn't even fucking singing — I was humming, which is, like, a totally different thing." Ray's sulking now.

Brad closes his eyes for a second and takes a deep breath. He's ready to burst, but he can't.

Ray turns off onto an unpaved road. It's desert one side, wheat on the other. The crop is high enough to hide men. Brad prefers the desert.

"Look out for movement in the wheat," Brad tells Hasser.

"Yes, Brad."

Ray's tapping gets louder, and the humming becomes actual words.

"(I said)
Its gettin' hot in here (so hot)
So take off all your clothes."

"Ray, shut the fuck up."

Ray scowls, and stops singing.

"Camels at our ten o'clock," Hasser calls down. "Don't shoot them, Trombley."

"I didn't shoot any fucking camels on purpose," Trombley mutters.

"Hey, have you heard the one about the General and the camel?" Reporter asks.

Ray perks up. "It'd better be filthy, or we don't want to hear it."

"Yeah, it's kind of filthy," Reporter says, which probably means it's nowhere near the required filth level to make a Marine laugh. "There's this General, and he's stationed in a fort in Afghanistan. First thing he does is get a tour of the place, and half-way through the tour, he spots a scabby old camel tied up at the back of the fort. He turns to the Corporal who's giving him the tour. 'What in God's name is that for?' The Corporal ums and ahs a bit, but the General insists he can speak freely. 'Well, sir, there are lots of men here, and sometimes they get, you know, a bit horny—' 'Ah, yes,' the General interrupts. 'I understand.' The General's been there for a couple of weeks, and one morning he wakes up with a serious stiffy. He's so hard he can barely walk. So he calls for the Corporal and tells him to fetch the camel. The Corporal fetches the camel, and he brings a little wooden three-legged stool that he sets down behind it. The General climbs up on the stool, whips out his dick, sticks it in the camel and fucks it like a madman. When he's finished, he sighs with relief, tucks his limp dick away and turns to the Corporal proudly. 'Well,' he says, 'is that the way you men do it around here?' 'Er, no, sir,' the Corporal says. 'We normally just use the camel to ride to the nearest brothel'."

For a writer, Rolling Stone is fucking terrible at telling jokes.

"'S not like that in the Marines," Ray says. "If they told the truth in the ads, it'd be 'join the Marines and get fucked up the ass every day for the rest of your career. And probably after too.'"

Brad turns to him. "I don't see what you're complaining about, Ray. You'd have joined up even sooner if you'd had the promise of a nice big dick up your ass."

Ray grins. "Nah, I joined up for the pussy. I got promised all the pussy I wanted. A fuck-as-much-as-you-like buffet of hot Thai pussy."

"That's just greedy."

"No, man, it's generous. Sharing my monster dick around, give everyone a taste of the real deal. Of course it'd spoil them all for anyone else. Except you, Iceman. Every girl's gonna want Iceman dick in her. We all know nothing compares to Iceman dick. Even the whores all fight over him," Ray adds over his shoulder to Rolling Stone, as though Brad's ever taken him along to a whorehouse.

Brad closes his eyes a moment. Foolish, because of course Ray notices. "Hey, Brad's thinking about nice tight pussy. Is she all hot and needy, Brad? I bet she fuckin' is. Save some for your old pal Ray-Ray!"

Brad wishes he were. If he were imagining some whore's hot, wet pussy, he'd be happy. He'd have to wait for it, but he could beat off to the thought of pussy until he gets it, no problem. Best of all, after Brad fucked her, he could just pay up and send her away. Both satisfied, nothing more needed or expected. Whores are easy and guilt-free. A nice, neat transaction. No attachments, no emotions, just two people getting off. That's all Brad wants.

Closing his eyes and picturing Nate Fick on his hands and knees, that's a problem. That's just fucking not on.

Brad can't stop thinking about it. Jesus fuck.

"Why are camels called 'ships of the desert'?" Trombley asks. Reporter chuckles and Ray rolls his eyes. Too old. Brad doesn't dignify the question with a response.

"Because they're filled with Arab semen," Trombley says, as proud and dumb as a camel-fucking General.

"Watch your sector, Trombley," Brad says. He keeps his own eyes wide open.

*

Everyone thinks it's going to be better once they reach Baghdad. The war's practically over.

They start talking about what they'll do afterwards.

Brad doesn't. Day to day is enough for Brad.

*

There's another batch of mail. The second this week. Welcome to civilization.

"Letter from your girlfriend," Carisalez says, tossing a plain white envelope in Brad's general direction. His aim's for shit.

Brad's about to deny it when he sees the return name and address on the back. Kelly Haven. That's her married name.

"One for you too, LT." Carisalez throws it wildly, but Fick manages to catch it.

Ray's watching Brad like a hawk. Like he thinks Brad's not going to cope with getting a letter from his ex. Sometimes Ray's worse than a fucking wife. Now Brad can't just stuff the letter in his cammies and throw it away later; he has to read the goddamn thing.

The LT's smiling at his letter.

"You got a girlfriend back home, sir?" Lilley asks.

The LT shakes his head. "Sisters. Two of them. And it looks like I'm going to be an uncle." He sounds excited, like it's the best fucking news he's had in months. Probably is. Brad can imagine him surrounded by kids, all adoring him. Their favorite uncle. And his own kids. He probably wants a pair of his own. Miniature Ficks, perfect and earnest.

Brad's going to be fucking uncle too, or whatever you are to your best friend and ex's spawn. He doesn't know why Kelly's telling him, or why she'd think he gives a damn. "Congratulations, sir," he says, although it's always struck him as a stupid thing to congratulate anyone for. Breeding's easy — bringing them up's the hard part. Do a decent job with that, and then, maybe, congratulations might be in order.

*

"Your girlfriend okay?" Nate asks. He sits down opposite Brad on the remains of a wall. Brad stares at him blankly. "You just seemed—a bit quiet earlier."

Brad puts down his clipboard and pencil. He bites the bullet. "Ex-girlfriend. Married my best friend. She's just peachy. And pregnant. Hoo-fucking-rah."

Nate simply nods. No tedious sympathy. Brad appreciates that.

"We've got Meesh tomorrow. We're heading into the Nazal Hikmat Beg sector to distribute water and see what else is needed."

"The question is, will anyone take the water?"

Nate sighs. "I don't know. I just don't fucking know anything anymore, Brad."

They've been sleeping under a roof for days now, no more than twenty-five percent watch, but Brad suddenly realizes that Nate looks more tired than he did at Al Kut. He wants to reach out and tell Nate it'll be fine, that they're doing some good, but it'd be bullshit. They sit in silence.

Nate breaks it. "My ex got married over Christmas." There's a streak of dirt on Nate's face. He's actually clean enough that it shows. It's distracting.

"Did you go to the wedding?" Brad asks.

"I wasn't invited."

"A bad breakup?" Brad wouldn't normally ask, but this seems like a world apart, this little broken-down enclave they're in. Brad can hear Garza and Chaffin in the distance, working out, and the sound of a Humvee being revved up, but it's all just background.

"Sort of. Inevitable, anyway. We left college. I went into the Corps and Da—"

Brad thinks of names beginning with D-A. He can't imagine Nate with a girl called Daisy.

Nate and Dave. David. Damien.

Nate's staring at him. Telling him. He doesn't slip up like that by accident.

Brad doesn't want to know. He has no intention of becoming another Dave, left behind next time Nate makes a life-altering decision.

"Some women can't handle being left behind," Brad says, and nearly chokes on the stupid fucking irony of his own words.

*

Brad makes one phone call. He ought to call his mom — she'd love to hear from him — but she won't expect it, and he never knows what to say to her on the phone. So he calls up the fucking incompetent cat 9 morons who were supposed to have shipped him his turret and reams them out for putting his turret man, and therefore his team, and by extension the whole fucking platoon at risk by his fucking pansy-assed, limp-dicked incompetence. It's possibly the most satisfying moment of the war so far, sitting there, listening to the guy at the other end shitting himself. Brad thinks the guy's about to commit hara-kiri by the time he hangs up. It'd make for one less moron in the world. Worth every dollar the call cost.

He almost changes his mind about calling his mom, but the guy in the plyboard cubicle on his right, some Private from Charlie Company, sounds like he's beating off, and the POG on his left is crying into his phone, so Brad heads back to the relative sanity of Bravo One.

They'll be going home in a week, anyway. The order has come through. All they're doing now is counting time.

*

Being back at Pendleton just means a different kind of tedium and bullshit. Some aspects of life in the Corps are universal.

*

Captain America and Encino Man are staying, and Nate Fick's leaving. Fucking typical of the Corps to let the good ones go and keep the crap. Promote them so they can fuck up even more men.

"He doesn't have a choice, you know that, dawg," Poke says. Brad pushes a piece of chicken around his plate. It's dry and tasteless. Marine cooks can make anything tasteless, even fine Californian chicken. He eats it anyway. He needs to put on a few pounds — they've all lost weight.

"Everyone has a choice." Not entirely true, but then Brad's not feeling entirely reasonable. He chewed Ray's head off earlier for saying the same thing. He glares at the officers' table. Nate glances up and catches him. Stares back, wide-eyed and young. Brad looks away first.

Poke notices. Of course. At least he keeps his voice low. "So, what, you think Fick should just ignore everything he believes in and toe the line? Shit, dawg, you know he's not that kinda man. Hell, that's what made him such a great LT — we didn't want some dick-sucking yes-man like Captain America."

Brad wants to argue with Poke, wants to give a hundred reasons why Nate ought to stay in the Corps, but he's just hung up on his own fucking sense of being betrayed and if he starts talking, he knows that'll come over, loud and clear. And he doesn't need Poke to give him some bullshit about Nate not abandoning them, still caring for his men, because Brad doesn't believe it. He is leaving them behind, moving on to bigger and better things and leaving them to deal with the shit without him.

Deal with life without him. And Brad's royally fucked up if he's thinking like that.

He picks up half a dozen Rip-Its on his way out and shoves them in his pockets. He'll give them to Ray later. They'll do as an apology.

*

Nate doesn't have the decency to just leave. Say he's going and fucking go. It drags out, and in the meantime he's still their Captain.

"Fucking paperwork," he says when Brad reports to him one Monday morning. "I think it's meant to be a test of your mental acuity, getting out of the Corps. If you're not bright enough to work out how to fill out all the forms, and where they all need to go and who needs copies, you're stuck here for life. And even if you can work it out, it takes forever."

"I'm sure you're smart enough to pass the test," Brad says. He doesn't say it like a compliment. He doesn't mean it as one.

"Brad," Nate says, and then halts. He's always good with words — careful with them, succinct and clear — but for once he seems lost. Brad doesn't try to help him out, just stands there, waiting for his orders for the day.

It sets the pattern for the week. Nate trying and Brad shutting him down. Politely and with all due regard for their relative ranks, but making sure he doesn't give Nate any opening to actually say anything. Brad doesn't want to hear what Nate has to say, doesn't want to hear excuses.

*

The last time he sees Nate is at his paddle party, a Friday evening in late August.

He's Mr. Fick now. Not that anyone calls him that. He'll always be LT.

Everyone tells a story when it comes time to present Nate with his paddle. Christeson goes first. Brad wants to tune out, but there's too much pride in everyone's voice as they step forward. He can't. He has to listen.

When Brad's turn comes to say something about Nate, he dries up. There are any number of acceptable moments he could mention. All he can think of are the quiet moments, just the two of them, things they didn't say. Things Brad wanted to say but was too much of a damn coward to put into words.

Now isn't the time or place. There never really was a right time or place to say them — Brad's cowardice was always rooted in logic and preservation. A comfort; of sorts.

He remembers what he planned to say. About Muwaffaqiyah. Getting ambushed, and seeing the LT running up alongside the Humvees. Bullets flying. He doesn't need to say much — they all remember it. He says Nate was a lucky motherfucker, and during the laughter something clicks into place inside him. He remembers his unrelenting anger after that mission and knows it wasn't because the LT didn't get them the recon mission they needed. It wasn't because they'd gotten into an ambush that was avoidable. It wasn't even because Nate motherfucking Fick had flagrantly ignored his own safety to unfuck the situation. It was because in that moment, Brad had been scared shitless. He'd visualized a bullet finding the soft gap in the side of Nate's flak jacket and piercing skin, shattering Nate's lungs. He'd pictured Nate bleeding out in the dark, blood bubbling up between his lips, while Brad was helpless, unable to do a thing to save him. In that moment, he didn't deserve the name Iceman. Didn't deserve to be a Marine, because falling to pieces under fire was what got your men killed.

Brad doesn't say any of that. He keeps his cool and toasts Nate at the end of his story and everyone cheers, like they've cheered every story.

Mike's last, handing the paddle over to Pappy to present to Nate, and then it's all over bar the drinking. Nate's as good as gone now.

Marines excel at getting drunk. Brad's no exception, normally, but this evening he nurses his beer. He heads outside after he's won three darts games in a row — it's too easy to beat Q-Tip when he won't use his right hand because he's got a beer in it — and cradles his warming beer can. He has a cigar from Poke in his top pocket, which he considers pulling out, but he doesn't have a light.

Nate joins him after a while, pulling up a deckchair beside him. Mike's closed the windows — to spare the neighbors, no doubt — and the party's muted out here.

They talk. About Afghanistan — it turns out they were on the same ship at the same time at one point — and Operation Iraqi Freedom and war protestors and big-buck war contractors. They argue about politics and mostly agree about the war, and they never once mention anything personal.

Nate has a cigar from Poke too. And a lighter. The cigars are good, mellow, not like the cheap Swisher Sweets he used to smoke in Iraq.

Marines spill out of the house at intervals, cabs waiting for them. Mike's got it all organized. They call out their goodbyes, some sloppily saluting Nate as they weave away. And still he and Nate keep talking.

At some point they must have fallen asleep. Brad has no awareness of it, no recollection of feeling sleepy or his eyes closing even, just the realization that he must have been sleeping when he's jolted upright by the slap of an arm across his face. Nate's twitching, mumbling unhappily.

Brad recognizes the signs. Nate's dreaming, and it isn't good. It's one of the little things the Corps neglects to mention when you join up — your dreams will be fucked up for life once you've seen combat.

Brad doesn't wake him. Just leans over and places a hand on his arm. Not holding him down, just touching.

It seems to work. Nate's breathing slows and his head settles to one side.

Brad relaxes. He closes his eyes for a moment.

When he opens them, it's getting light, the sky turning pink in the east. Light enough to see. The lights in the house are out, and it's fully quiet in the yard. Brad's hand is still on Nate's arm.

Nate's eyes are open, watching him.

It's past time to leave. Cara and the kids will be back soon, and they'd all promised Mike to be gone by then.

Brad moves his hand. He shouldn't feel the loss of contact so keenly. He wishes he were drunk or had a hangover so he could stumble down the path and not remember anything that might be said.

He stands up and stretches. "Better get out of here," he says. His bike is parked outside, behind Nate's car. They're both fine to drive. All that's left is to say goodbye. He'll make it quick.

"Brad," Nate says. He sounds tired. Raw, like his voice is giving out.

"Sir?" Brad replies, as though he hasn't been calling him 'Nate' all night.

Nate stands, and Brad holds out his hand. A quick shake and he can go. Nate ignores it, and for a moment it's a sucker punch to the gut. A ghastly moment when Brad thinks Nate considers him unworthy.

Then Nate moves forward, past Brad's outstretched hand, closer. Too close for anything but one reason.

Brad wants to run. Needs to, but he's up against his chair and Nate's between him and escape, and all the tactics he's ever learned desert him.

Nate kisses him, soft and quiet, and it's worse than any goodbye could have been.

And then he leaves.

 

ii. a bryd that retorneth agayn to his owene nest

 

England is a choice. Brad's staying with the Corps, but he doesn't have to stay here.

It's a two-year exchange. At the time, he's conscious of every minute of it.

*

On his first run ashore with his new troop, Brad teaches them Crud. Within five minutes they've broken the glass on a framed painting of the Spanish Armada, spilled the referee's lager, and amassed two casualties (walking wounded).

Two minutes later, they get thrown out of the pub.

Brad considers it an auspicious start.

*

Brad misses five things while he's in England:

Decent roads. Ones meant for driving, for the sheer joy of the open road.

Fried chicken.

NPR. He'd never admit this, but listening to Talk of the Nation or Fresh Air when he's driving the freeway is one of the things that makes him feel like he's home.

Late-night shopping for just about anything. Sometimes, Brad wants a memory module or a network card at eleven pm so he can say fuck you to insomnia.

California weather. British weather is fucking schizophrenic. It's crazier than his Uncle Will, and he's been on a psych ward ever since he ran out of his house at midnight, stark naked, swearing that aliens were climbing his drainpipe to come and kill him. California weather is predictable, and Brad appreciates having something in his life that is.

Brad doesn't miss people. Ray emails him every week — long rambling emails that make minimal sense — and Poke phones him every now and then. His parents are as much in his life as they've ever been — on the periphery. It's all good.

Brad doesn't think about Nate. He can't.

*

Brad's CO, Major Iain Mackie, is a stocky, taciturn guy in his thirties with a barely comprehensible accent. It's Glaswegian, apparently.

Major Mackie appears almost bored with his job and has a general air of indolence about him. Brad is certain it's a front. He's also reasonably certain that the Major plays up his accent whenever Brad's around, just to mess with him. Brad has no problem with that.

He gets confirmation that the Major's apparent lassitude is a front when Exercise Cetus goes bad.

Exercise Cetus is the troop's first big exercise since they returned from Iraq. It's a multi-national affair, America, Britain and other NATO countries working in various degrees of harmony. They're in Cyprus to practice covert beach reconnaissance.

Their first task is a submarine landing, transferring from the submarine to their boats and landing as quickly and quietly as possible.

Brad's in his element. This is what being a Marine is all about. This is what he's meant to be doing, not racing across the desert in a fucking Humvee.

Two of his team members, Bluey and Scott, both nineteen and Privates, have never been on an amphibious operation before. They're overexcited, Bluey jabbering so much that it feels like déjà vu. Only the hick accent is missing. The second they exit the submarine though, they go quiet. Brad counts a total of eight spoken words between the submarine and the landing. Afterwards, he tells them they were perfectly satisfactory, but his report is glowing.

The next night, it's infiltration via helicopter.

Brad's team is last to go, Brad the last to jump.

The water feels freezing in the dark, even though it's degrees warmer than the south coast of England. They're a mile off the coast, the craggy shoreline invisible in the dark. Brad groups his men, and their rehearsals have paid off; they're swimming quietly and efficiently in the right direction within seconds of hitting the water.

Scott is the first to see there's a problem. He signals to Brad. "Floater, eleven o'clock. One of ours, I think," he mouths. They all bear thirty degrees towards the dark mass on the water, following Brad.

Scott's right. It's Corporal Johns, from 40 Commando. Brad met him this morning. He didn't have a huge gash on the side of his head then.

Even in the focused red light of his flashlight, Brad can see it's serious. Johns is unconscious, and there's no way of telling how much blood he's lost in the water or how long he was facedown. Where the fuck the rest of his team is, Brad doesn't want to know.

Brad feels for a pulse. There isn't one.

He breaks radio silence and calls for aid, then starts resucitation. It's almost impossible to do properly while treading water, but he's damned if he's going to let a man die out here for lack of trying.

The Major is the first to reach them, his strokes strong and fast, his second-in-command unable to keep up with his pace. Mackie takes over first aid from Brad until the quiet thrum of a boat engine punctuates the arrival of Doc Warren. The Major keeps the exercise running, barks orders on his radio, deals with the men around him, keeps the youngsters calm. Brad's certain the Major saves Johns' life. He's quick and efficient and Brad understands why all his men like him.

Brad's glad to serve under him.

*

Brad's Lieutenant is so green he glows in the dark.

The less said about him the better.

*

He takes his libo in England. He might as well explore the island while he's here. He goes to the Lake District because Matty Johnson, Brad's Corporal, swears by the climbing there.

He didn't expect it to be so small.

The lakes are glorified ponds, and he barely has to tilt his head back to see the top of any of the 'mountains'. He emails Ray and tells him the Brits are shit-full of lies calling this a mountain range.

He covers fifteen peaks in his first day, without even trying. He doesn't work up much of a sweat, but it's warm enough that a cold drink at the little whitewashed pub in the valley is more than welcome.

There's a girl outside, sitting with a beer in her hand and her feet in the stream at the bottom of the pub garden. She's gorgeous, tall and blonde, with the sort of serious expression that Brad thinks might be a thin cover for a fabulous sense of humor. Or it might mean she's a miserable bitch — it could go either way.

Brad's willing to take a chance.

He sits down near her, pulling his boots and socks off and rolling up his pants legs so he can stick his own feet in the water. "Sorry if they stink," he says because that seems like an innocuous way to say hello.

"I think mine were worse," she says, lifting them and wriggling white toes in the air. When she smiles she shows all her teeth. The front ones are crooked.

Brad buys her next beer, sitting back down closer to her, and then she buys the third round, real ale this time. "Blencathra bitter, the perfect pint," she says, handing it over, and it's not bad. Better than the piss the Iraqis call beer.

Her name's Antonia and she's training to be a chartered tax advisor. "It's not as boring as it sounds," she says, and tells him stories about the stupid shit her coworkers get up to.

She confuses the Marines with the Army, but Brad doesn't hold it against her much. A nice pair of tits goes along way to making him feel forgiving, and he's pretty sure she's got a nice pair under her sports top. She's not wearing a bra.

When he stands up to leave, she stands too, and they walk out together. He doesn't even need to say anything. They go to her place, which turns out to be a one-man tent on the edge of a small camping site.

There's soft stubble on her thighs, under her hiking shorts.

"I wasn't planning on getting laid," she says when he runs his hand up against it, rubbing the short hairs the wrong way. "I just came up for the hiking."

So did Brad, but he's a good Marine, always prepared. He has condoms in his wallet.

He was right about her tits. They bounce when he pulls off her top and when she's riding him. She throws her head back and swears when he bites her nipples.

The next morning, he gives her his email address. He isn't drunk at the time or half asleep. He's fully aware of his actions.

He likes her.

*

They deploy to Afghanistan. Last time Brad was there, it was summer. This time, winter is approaching, and Royal Marines are as slow in equipping their men appropriately as Recon.

They get their winter gear three weeks after the first snowfall.

Brad spends his nights freezing his nuts off and his days getting them shot at.

Business as usual.

*

When they get back, he leads a training exercise on Dartmoor. It's the first week in February, and it rains non-stop, but it's a cakewalk after Afghanistan. The moor reminds him of sabka fields, the crusty surface and tufty grass hiding peat bogs. Scott loses one of his boots on the thirty-mile hike and has to finish it in his socks. At least he has the sense not to complain in front of Brad.

Their tents are exposed, nothing more than a few rocks to break the wind and lashing rain. Brad can't sleep. He listens to Matty's snoring for a while, then pulls on his outerwear and heads outside.

He doesn't go far. He pictures Antonia when he jacks off, imagines her bending over for him, pussy wet and dripping. He remembers the feel of stubble under his hands and long legs.

When he comes, it's Nate's name on his tongue.

*

Captain Mackie offers him an extended transfer. He calls it a mutually beneficial exchange of understanding and skills in considerably less accented English than usual. He's okayed the offer already.

All Brad would need to do is say yes. (And fill in a fuck-ton of paperwork, of course.)

He considers it.

*

Antonia visits him in Plymouth for a weekend in April. Brad rents a hotel room for them, and they fuck for the better part of twenty-four hours. On Sunday, they rent jet skis, and then they go back to the hotel and fuck again.

They dress up for dinner. He has steak, medium-rare, and she has lobster. The conversation's easy, but Brad wants to fake an emergency and run.

"How long are you in England?" she asks. She's wearing a halterneck, and Brad can see the little mole on her collarbone. There's the faintest mark above it where he bit her last night — she came seconds later, shuddering and gasping and calling his name.

Brad has nearly four months left. He said no to Captain Mackie's offer. "I'm leaving soon," he lies. "Any day now."

Her face falls, and she bites her lip. She looks like she wants to cry, and Brad feels like an jerk.

It's the right decision.

*

He decides to upgrade his phone. He doesn't keep his old number. He changes his email address too. He emails Ray and Poke and Mike and Eric — which is as good as emailing the whole of Bravo — and his parents, a cousin, and a couple of friends from home.

*

Afterwards, England rolls up into a neat package, a portion of his life completely separate from the rest. Two years when the rest of the world moves on without him.

When he gets home, it's as though he was never gone.

*

It starts with an email. It arrives the day Brad steps back on home soil. It doesn't say much, not in actual words, but then they never did say much in actual words.

Meet me, it says. Date, time, and place. Concise.

Nate always was concise.

*

They meet at the designated time and place. On the sea-front, early. The tourists and rollerbladers aren't around yet.

They walk along the shore. On the beach, they both take off their shoes and socks and roll up their pants. Brad's feet are tanned for all that he's spent the summer in England.

Nate's feet are shockingly pale in comparison. Brad points to them. "Your feet are as white as they were on deployment."

"At least they don't stink. You know, I still can't eat goat cheese. One whiff of the stuff, and it's like I've just taken my boots off."

Brad picks up a pebble and skims it across the water. It catches a wave on the second bounce and sinks. He doesn't know why he's here. Why Nate's here. He could turn around and head back to his bike and he doesn't think Nate would do anything to stop him. He doesn't know why he doesn't. He should. He should be the one to walk away for a change.

They buy ice cream from a vendor. It allows them to be silent.

Nate finishes his first. Brad's is melting, dripping down the side of the cone. The cone has gone soft by the time he gets to it, the texture of damp cardboard. He's eaten worse, but he can't bring himself to eat this. Instead, he throws it at a golden retriever that's just run out of the sea. The dog catches it midair and swallows it. The wretched creature will probably follow them now. Brad makes a sharp move towards it, get, go, and it slinks off. That's all it takes to get rid of it.

He wonders if he should try the same move on Nate. He'd just have to say the word, and Nate would leave.

"I needed to start something new," Nate says, stopping and staring out at the sea.

There's nothing Brad feels the need to say to that. It's stating the obvious. Out with the old, in with the new. The question is, why is he meeting the old now? This can't be part of his five-year plan or ten-year plan or whatever action plan Harvard graduates and fast-trackers have.

*

Nate's here for a week. He tells Brad this. He's booked his hotel room for seven nights.

Whatever his purpose in being here, he expects to execute it in seven days. Brad can't see that he's achieved anything at the end of his first day — he's walked with Brad, barely speaking, eaten ice cream and later a pretzel. Most of their conversations so far have revolved around people they both know: Nate's better informed than Brad these days, knows who's engaged and who's promoted and who's talking of buying an ostrich farm in Australia.

Brad doesn't have to sign in at base for another week. He doesn't believe in coincidences.

*

On the second day, Brad takes his bike out, lets rip along the I-15. He's been aching to do this for two years. Two years full of frustration at the smallness of English roads and the vigilance of English police.

He leaves his cellphone behind. He leaves everything behind. Just him and his bike.

He fills up the tank and heads north. He wants wide empty roads. He wants to go as fast as he can and still feel like he's not moving, the horizon stationary in front of him.

He's gotten used to the green of an English summer, everywhere fresh even when the locals are complaining of the drought. This feels right, land dark under the mounting heat haze, the sky impossibly blue. Everything bigger, brighter, more.

And yet. It isn't as satisfying as he expects.

*

On the third day, his phone rings at five am. It's light, just barely. He recognizes the number because he looked up the number of Nate's hotel the night before.

He lets it ring six times, then picks up.

"Yes?" he says, because if the person on the other end doesn't know who they're calling, they don't deserve to know.

"The surf's looking good. I'll be there in ten," Nate says, and hangs up.

Exactly ten minutes later, Brad opens the front door, board under his arm. Nate pulls up in his rental as Brad closes his door.

"Didn't know you surfed, sir," Brad says as he straps his board to the roof.

"I don't. But I'm willing to learn."

*

On the fourth day, Nate shows up without calling. It's six am, and Brad's still in bed. He answers the door naked, half asleep still. When he sleeps in his own bed it's the one time he allows himself to wake up slowly, gives into the weakness of needing caffeine to be fully alert.

Nate's in running shorts and a wife beater, sunblock thick and white over the sunburn across the back of his neck from the day before.

"Want me to make some coffee?" Nate asks, already moving into the kitchen. He clatters noisily around.

"Make it strong," Brad says. He wanders into his bedroom, picks up a pair of shorts from the day before, and puts them on. They feel too tight, or maybe it's that his balls feel too tight, his dick too heavy. He hasn't jacked off since he got home. He could get in the shower and do so now, but he doesn't. He drinks the coffee Nate places in front of him instead — black and strong — and the next one, and then they go for a run.

*

From his house, there's a circular route that he likes. Brad's measured it on his bike, fifteen miles exactly. It starts with a climb. They run the route, Nate letting Brad lead the way.

There's a viewpoint about eleven miles into the run. Brad's never stopped for it before. He doesn't need to now, but he thinks Nate does, although he isn't complaining.

Brad leans against a fence and looks out at the ocean. One of the things he loves about the ocean is how vast it is, how unknowable. How dangerous, even when it's at its most beautiful. Nate rests next to him, not quite touching at the elbows. His breath slows down after a couple of minutes.

"Good surfing weather again," Nate says eventually.

Brad nods. The waves are perfect, curling high and crashing down hard.

"I put the Combat Water Safety Swimmers Course down as my last choice for advanced training. I always hated being underwater. The thought of drowning."

"Let me guess," Brad snorts. "That's the course you got?"

Nate nods.

"Show a weakness in the Corps, and it'll get beaten out of you."

"I worked that out too late. What about you?" Nate asks.

"I didn't have a last choice." Brad would have done every single course ever offered if he'd been allowed.

"Nothing scared you?" Nate doesn't sound surprised, just curious.

"Nothing the Corps could throw at me, no."

"What does scare you?"

Brad swallows. "Questions like that," he says. Joking. Except it's the truth. Jumping from a helicopter is easy; driving into a firefight is easy; having this conversation is possibly the scariest thing he's ever done.

Nate smiles as though he understands. He probably does, as loud and clear as if Brad had said the words. "This," Nate says, and he motions between them, "this is part of a new start."

Brad doesn't say anything.

"You don't get it, do you?" Nate says quietly, a hint of exasperation creeping in. "Why I'm here."

Brad isn't accustomed to not understanding. He's used to being left behind but not like this. "No," he says. Belligerent, because he's pissed at himself and he's irrationally pissed at Nate for making him feel slow, for having a conversation in which Brad's two steps behind.

"Do you think Captain Fick could be anything more than friends with Sergeant Colbert?"

No, Brad doesn't think he could.

"But Nate and Brad? That's new. That can happen." Nate pauses. "If," he says, and leaves the word hanging. For Brad to pick up.

And Brad's there. He's caught up and ready to pick up.

"Yeah," he says, because he isn't really a coward, and that's when Nate turns to look at him. Brad's not sure what he sees.

Nate must be sure of what he sees because he kisses Brad.

This time it's not soft and gentle, and he doesn't walk away afterwards.

*

The fifth day starts well. Brad approves of waking up to Nate sucking his dick.

It's messy and inexpert and Brad's had better. Much better. They never felt this good though.

He must have given some sign that he's awake because Nate looks up from between his thighs. Nate's lips are stretched around his dick, spit-slick and shiny. His hair is ruffled and it makes Brad ache just to look at him like this. So eager and determined and fucking gorgeous.

Brad's never felt this self-aware. This isn't easy. This feels perilous. Like jumping off a cliff, only Brad's been trained to do that. That's something he knows. This is new, this uncertainty of where he should put his hands, what he'll say afterwards, what this means. This feeling in his gut, something like excitement and something like fear.

Brad bucks his hips up. Nate falters momentarily, but he's been tied wrist and ankle and thrown in a pool. He's drownproofed. He rallies, thumb and forefinger around the base of Brad's cock, squeezing and stroking as he sucks.

Brad comes faster than he did his first time, with Kelly Ortiz under the bleachers. No warning — his throat's too tight to try to give one. Maybe Brad's not drownproofed.

Nate wrinkles his face afterwards, slumping down on the pillow beside Brad. "I think I prefer coffee," he says, and Brad's laughing before he realizes the implication, and then he can't stop laughing anyway.

Nate's naked under the sheets. Brad kicks them off. Looks at them both, side by side. They're both wiry, lean but well muscled. He has a swimmer's tan, and Nate's almost winter pale. Brad's cock is mostly soft now. Nate's hard, his cock curving up towards his belly, the head sticky where he's leaking.

Last night, everything was fast and desperate. There's no rush this morning.

Brad trails his fingers between Nate's thighs. Nate lets them drop open, Brad's hand skimming the tender skin between. There's a bruise on Nate's hip, thumb-shaped. Brad made it last night. It looks better on Nate than any moto Marine tattoos possibly could.

Nate twitches impatiently as Brad explores. He's biting his lip.

Brad grins. "For someone who's been through SERE, you're remarkably lacking in patience."

"I wasn't aware that sex with you would amount to a torture session."

"It won't. If you're patient."

"Patience is an overrated quality."

"The youth of today," Brad sighs. "All about instant gratification."

"Fuck, Brad. I don't want instant gratification, I just want you to put your fucking hand on my fucking dick."

Brad swallows his smile at Nate's unaccustomed profanity and moves his hands. Just not where he's ordered. He rolls Nate's balls in his hands, feeling the velvety slide of them. Slips one finger further back until he finds the tight pucker of Nate's asshole. Nate hisses as Brad presses, eyes widening a fraction though he covers his surprise quickly. He really is totally new to this.

Brad reassesses. He'll keep it simple.

There's a tube of lotion in his nightstand. It'll do for now. He pours some on his hands and settles on his side. He rests one hand on Nate's flank, stroking. The other he wraps around Nate's shaft.

Nate responds to everything. Every twist and turn elicits new sounds, until he throws his arm over his face and tries to muffle them.

"Don't," Brad says. He stops.

Nate moves his arm away from his face. His bottom lip is red and swollen where he's bitten it, and soft when Brad kisses him.

It's the first time Brad has kissed him.

"I want to hear," Brad says. He wants to see him too, but one admission is enough for now.

Nate nods, flushed, then groans as Brad moves again, stroking down across his belly, along the cut of his hip bone. Taking him in hand again, firmer now, faster strokes, the kind Brad likes when he's getting close. Nate's face is naked, so open it's shocking. Brad feels his own cock stirring. He ignores it. Now is all about Nate.

Nate goes silent as he comes, his dick pulsing and heavy in Brad's hand. There are creamy-white splatters on his belly, on the wiry blond hair that trails up towards his belly button.

Brad reaches out blindly to the floor, feeling around until he grabs something. Nate's white cotton briefs. He uses them to wipe up the mess, ignoring Nate's faint look of disapproval.

"It's your turn to make the coffee," Nate retaliates.

*

"You were off in your estimation of time," Brad says, later. He'd eventually gotten up to make coffee, but Nate stayed where he was, so Brad ended up going back to bed with it. He can't remember the last time he lay in bed in the daylight. It feels indulgent, lazy.

"I hoped it wouldn't take the full seven days," Nate admits. "But I like to be prepared. I couldn't risk compromising my mission by underestimating the time it would take."

"You were confident you could achieve your objective in the time, though." Not a question.

"Even dealing with one of the most stubborn motherfuckers I've ever met, yes, I was confident."

"And this is a long-term objective?" This time it is a question.

Nate props himself up on one elbow. He's still naked, but he manages to look every inch the officer. "Damn, Brad, what do you think?"

Brad thinks it is. Hopes. He's already started mapping out changes, planning. "Yeah," he says, "I'm thinking long-term sounds good."

Brad lives dangerously and intends to die dangerously. They are two sure points in the geometry of his life.

Nate is another sure point. Has been from the start, if Brad had let himself consider it in more than a few unguarded moments. If he hadn't shut down the idea every time it surfaced. If he hadn't thrown a fucking smoke grenade and run under the cover, all the while convincing himself that Nate was the one running.

It's a good thing Nate's a stubborn motherfucker too.

Nate relaxes. He lies back down and starts to smile. "In the short-term, I'm thinking more coffee would be good."

"Really? You think I'm your bitch now?"

"Honestly? Yes." Nate smirks.

Ray always used to say that the innocent choirboy look was a front. Brad's going to make damn sure he never finds out he was right.

He swings his feet over the side of the bed and ignores Nate's laughter as he goes to make more coffee.

*

This is the story of two men. The one who stayed and the one who never truly left.