In Iraq, he figures the low-grade headaches are a result of too little sleep, too many hours of forced hyperawareness, too many packets of instant coffee crystals dumped straight and bitter onto his tongue. The part of him that always knows where Brad is, like the needle of a compass or a divining rod, he passes off as being a good CO, always knowing where his men are. He'll sleep it all off when the war is over. Whenever that is. Right now, what he wants most is to get everyone through this alive.
By the time they get home, he's so used to the slight pressure in his temples and the low buzzing in his ears and the back of his throat that he doesn't remember what a clear head feels like. Driving on the freeway, he swerves randomly beneath each overpass and doesn't notice until it's brought to his attention. He's not the only one with headaches and trouble sleeping; he's definitely not the only one who looks instinctively for muzzle flashes when a car backfires.
He can pop Motrin for the pain but there's nothing to be done for his jagged nerves. Rudy suggests more yoga, his mom suggests meditation, Patrick suggests he get laid. The Corps suggests a promotion, and Nate finds himself a Captain.
There's a small voice in the back of his head that says, This isn't what you want, and it's getting louder day by day.
"Nate," a voice says above him, and Nate opens his eyes. Mike's face is blurry above him, so Nate blinks a few times, and Mike comes into focus.
He tries to say "yes?" but his lips are numb and it's a wordless grunt instead.
"I don't think you should be allowed to have the tequila anymore," Mike says. He leans down and pries Nate's fingers from around a bottle Nate hadn't realized he was clutching. "Especially if it means you pass out on Colbert's gigantic foot."
Oh, so that's the lump under his head. It's surprisingly comfortable. He decides not to move. Somewhere above him, Brad says, "Gunny, are you trying to make some convoluted reference to the size of my dick?"
"I've seen your dick," Mike says in a dismissive tone, "and clearly you are also drunk off your ass if you let the Captain pass out on the floor."
"My dick is magnificent. Give me the fucking tequila," Nate hears Brad say, but he misses what happens next because his eyes drift shut again. Mike's living room floor has carpeting, which makes it a thousand times better than sprawling in the dirt, and Brad's foot is also not a rock, and his headache is gone for the first time in weeks, so. Yeah. Nate is staying right here.
There are other voices, the noise of bottles clinking and people laughing. His whole platoon had shown up for this. It's nice. Something drops on his face and he opens his eyes again to see Brad smirking down at him. Nate pats at his cheek and finds a barbecue-flavored potato chip. He's not sure what to do with it, so he eats it, then says, "You're dropping fucking chips on me?"
"My foot is asleep."
"So? Make do."
"I know it's your quinceañera and that tonight you're becoming a woman, but I'm not above kicking you in the ribs, sir," Brad warns.
"You don't have to call me sir anymore." Nate gets up and is shocked at the sudden throb in his temples.
He must look green, because someone howls, "Dude, the Captain's gonna hurl all over Brad!", and then Brad's grabbing him and pulling him down onto the sofa. The pain is gone as quickly as it had surfaced. "You're not gonna barf on me, are you?" Brad asks. He doesn't sound too alarmed.
"No," Nate huffs. The room spins a little, so he props his shoulder against Brad's. "I've had this headache for weeks, and tequila must have cured it because my head sure felt fine when I was lying on the floor, but then I stood up and it came back! But now it's gone again."
He's not sure that made any sense. Brad stares at him, a funny look on his face. Nate is too drunk to come up with what kind of look it actually is. "What?" he asks Brad.
Brad doesn't answer. Nate feels oddly sober again, which is weird. He knows what his limits are for all stages of drunkenness up to vomiting and passing out, and he's definitely at the stage where some extremities should be numb and walking should be close to impossible. But he thinks his head feels clear. "I'm good," he insists to no one in particular.
"I don't think the tequila cured your headache, sir," Brad says in a dry tone.
Across the room, Ray is leading a dubious-looking Walt in some sort of demented dance routine while Q-Tip hoots at them. Nate blinks. "Is that - the bunny hop?"
Brad groans. "Don't ask. I think we are all better off not knowing exactly what manner of idiocy in which they are engaging."
Mike settles on the arm of the couch, having found a cigar somewhere. "You know, if anyone calls the cops on us, we're all getting arrested," he says with a laugh, and Brad takes a swig of the tequila, and that's the last thing Nate remembers about his party.
He moves back to the East Coast. Does an internship in Washington while his platoon goes back to Iraq without him, and tries not to think about all the things that could happen. His mom offers to help him find an apartment. It's something Nate is completely capable of on his own, but he's been gone a long time and she wants to spend time with him, and so he acquiesces. He can tell she tries not to ask too many questions. As the internship comes to an end, he throws himself into the strange process of applying to grad school.
He's not jumpy to the point where anyone other than his family notices, but Nate still feels it, so in between application essays, he lets his mom drag him along to her meditation class, and lets his sisters take him out for a couple of beers. He goes to bed every night with pain creeping along his temples, dull enough but still there, and he wakes up drenched in cold sweat, jolted awake by nightmares that fade away before he can remember more than flashes, more nights than he wants to count.
He gets accepted to HKS and moves back out of his parents' house in the same week. The angry weather of spring gives way to hot and sticky summer as Nate buys a laptop and textbooks and all the school things that make him feel like he's trying to recall a past life. He puts together a cheap desk from IKEA, swearing at the unintelligible directions and wondering if wood glue wouldn't be a better choice.
Classes begin, and before Nate even knows it, he's hip-deep in academic journals, position papers, and econ homework. On the weekends, he tries to unpack the last of the unlabeled boxes, but a few end up stacked in the corner of his bedroom and forgotten. It's not until the weather begins to turn that he thinks one or more of them might hold warmer clothes than what he's been wearing, and he dumps the first out onto his bed.
At the bottom of the second box is an USMC sweatshirt he doesn't recognize as his own. He picks it up and looks at the tag, where COLBERT is written in permanent marker. The fabric is worn and soft against his palms. Nate pulls it over his head without a second thought. The ache at his temples fades in the space of one deep breath. It smells of detergent and something that he can't identify, something that part of him unconsciously recognizes as safety. The feeling of someone watching his six.
Nate wears the sweatshirt all day, and that night, there are no nightmares.
In the morning, he sends Brad a quick email. Found something of yours. To where should I return it?, and gets a smiley face and a San Luis Rey address in reply a day later.
He wears the sweatshirt half-dozen more times (at home only, headache fading every time, writing papers like they're orders), until he's convinced it's not his imagination. He types a few ridiculous search phrases into Yahoo!, feeling stupid that he's even trying, but finds nothing that might explain it. Then he buys a postcard at the campus bookstore. Writes, Do you ever think about a parallel life; what you would have done if not for the Corps?, and sends it with the sweatshirt.
That would be an exercise both pointless and idiotic, sir, a waste of my fucking time, Brad writes back, block letters scratched on a piece of notebook paper, folded once with a sharp crease and wrapped up in the scarf he mails in return.
Nate looks at the scarf for longer than he wants to admit. Then he tucks the note into his wallet, wondering. He loops the scarf around his neck, inhaling the faded scent. The reprieve is immediate, better than any painkiller he's tried in the interim between finding the sweatshirt and now. It feels so good he has to fight the urge to moan in relief.
He wears the scarf for more than a month, long after the effect is gone. On the next postcard, he writes, Time hasn't healed this. and sends it all two-day mail. He wonders if he's being too oblique, but on the morning of the third day, there's an email from Brad. You've stated the obvious, it reads, I'm sending a whole set this time, and it dawns on Nate that this problem might not only be him.
He tries not to think about it too often, and by that, he means he tries not to let it run his life. He doesn't hope there will be a package slip in his tiny mailbox, waiting for him to sign; he doesn't hope there will be an email or a postcard or a quick voicemail on his phone. He goes to class, to his study group, and to the library like clockwork. If the clothes he wears aren't always his own, he doesn't dwell.
The clerks at the post office all know his name by now, and last week, the lady who looks sort of like his aunt had looked at the name on the package Nate was mailing and asked, "Long distance boyfriend?"
He'd managed not to choke, immediately blanking his expression. "Something like that," he'd replied.
He starts at least three emails about it to Brad, but can't figure out the right funny/not funny tone, and he keeps spiraling into a lot of what's happened to us?, a question they've already established that neither of them know the answer to. In the end he discards the entire draft, puts on a hoodie that belongs to Brad, and takes his bike out for a ride.
All of Brad's packages arrive with a note. It's generally something like try this in thick Sharpie lines. Sometimes it's more specific, like hats were an excellent idea, sir.
The piece of paper that arrives with a soft grey t-shirt wrapped up in a pillowcase reads, This has become something utterly inconvenient, Nate. I'm tired of making do. The things in my head are not my usual thoughts. We need to figure this out face to face.
It's not an admission he would have expected from the Iceman. Nate looks closer at the printed out information that Brad's bold writing has crossed. It's a printed-out airline itinerary. Brad had bought a one-way plane ticket to Boston. The flight is tomorrow.
Relief is too weak a word for the feeling that washes over Nate. It doesn't matter that he can't stop his grin since there's no one else in the apartment to see him. He tugs off his shirt and pulls Brad's on over his head, puts the pillowcase on his pillow, slips the note in the shoebox with all the others, and then settles down with his laptop to finish a paper that's due in the morning, ignoring the tick of time in his head.
The buzzer sounds late in the afternoon. When Nate opens the door, Brad shifts slightly, such a small thing that Nate doubts most people would have seen it. Nate feels his body mimic the movement, and the worst of his headache dissipates in the space of one breath. He blinks.
"Hey. Come on inside," he says to Brad.
The apartment is tiny and slightly cluttered with the furniture that had been part of the lease. It's what Nate had wanted; he's gotten used to owning only what he can carry, and he'd been turned off by the idea of having to furnish a place (except for the desk and his bed) that he'd be leaving in a few years. Brad is carrying only a messenger bag. It looks new. He's wearing jeans and a sweater underneath a puffy blue winter jacket; he's dressed for February in Boston despite coming from a place that's hot all year around. Nate can't remember ever seeing Brad in jeans before. Even on libo it was always the same worn khaki shorts.
"You realize I had to buy things to wear them, and then mail them to you?" Brad asks.
"So did I."
"I brought some of it back."
It's then that Nate realizes Brad is wearing his sweater. Choosing bluntness over other, possibly messier options, he asks, "Why does this feel so awkward?"
Brad unzips his coat and shrugs it off. "Maybe because we haven't seen each other in person in more than a year?"
Nate steps forward and hugs him, because he can. It's only the second time he's hugged Brad, and the last time, there had been too many people around for it to be more than a quick and manly bump of chests. He's aware of Brad's hands coming to rest on his hips. The drone in his head stops completely, and the pressure in his temples that he's so used to is just - gone.
"What," he hears Brad mumble, and then, "That's disconcerting."
"All right, so it's not only me," Nate replies. He steps back.
Brad reaches up and touches his own temples, a look that might be wonder on his face. Then he scowls. "If this is happening like I think it is, it's really inconvenient to life."
"Don't need to tell me that."
"What do we do about it?"
He looks at Nate like he's waiting for orders. Nate feels his stomach twist. "I have no idea."
They've had conversations like this one before; in email, on paper, in stilted words on long-distance calls. But never in person. He clears his throat. "How long were you planning on staying?"
"I have a week, this time." Brad looks at him with an expression that Nate's never seen on him before. His hands are tight to his sides. "Sir, last month I tried to get laid and before I even got my dick out, I got hit with a migraine so bad I vomited in the girl's fucking bathroom sink."
Nate winces. At the knowledge that the night Brad is describing had to have been the same night that Nate had woken up nauseous and blamed it on his Chinese takeout, and at Brad's choice of words. "For God's sake, don't call me sir."
"Nate. There is nothing simple about what my body is telling my brain."
I know, Nate wants to say. Instead, he says, "Put your jacket back on. We're getting a beer," and trusts Brad to follow him out the door.
Settling in at a table in a dim corner of a bar a few blocks down the street, he turns the bottle in his hands, scraping at the corner of the label with his thumb, and says, "I don't really know you."
Brad pauses with his own bottle halfway to his mouth and replies, "You know me as well as anybody, Nate. And you sure as hell know me better than the people I didn't go to war with." He takes a long swallow.
Nate shakes his head. "That's not what I mean. You can tell me a hundred small things about your life, but I'll still be missing a thousand more."
"Then what do you want to know?"
What he wants to know the most is why this chose them, why he hasn't felt normal in more than a year, with the exception of the last thirty-eight minutes. But he knows Brad has no answer to that. If there's even an answer at all. "Right side of the bed or left?"
"What's the fastest you've ever driven your motorcycle?"
The corner of Brad's mouth quirks almost infinitesimally. "A hundred and fifty."
"Do you wear your shoes in the house?"
"My mom would beat my ass if I did," Brad says, shaking his head.
Nate grins. "Mine, too." He finishes his beer. "You want to eat here? The food's good. And my fridge is empty."
"No more questions?"
Nate flags down one of the waitstaff. He orders for both of them and Brad doesn't seem to mind; he immediately starts filling Nate in on what the 1/1 has been doing once the server departs. His hands move as he sketches out one of the training exercises he'd been tasked with designing, and Nate realizes that weird connections aside, he'd missed Brad. In a regular and ordinary way. Strangely, or maybe not that strangely, the thought makes him feel better.
Their hamburgers arrive and neither one of them speaks for a while as they eat. Then Nate takes a swallow of beer, sets his glass down firmly, and says, "All right. Time to compare symptoms."
Brad wipes his mouth with a napkin and replies, "Headache. Tinnitus, on occasion. The rare migraine."
"Like when you try to get laid?"
He nods. "You?"
"The droning noise in my head I can block out, or at least I'm so used to it that most of the time I don't realize it's there. It's muted nearly to nothing when I wear something of yours, though. Headaches. Constant pressure in my temples. It's been bad enough once or twice that I've thrown up, but I guess I wouldn't call it a migraine." Nate takes another sip of his beer and admits, "I'm still a little jumpy, but that's probably not the fault of - whatever this is."
Brad nods again, looking like he's trying to work something out in his head. Then he gestures to Nate's nearly empty glass and asks, "You want to get another beer here?"
He thinks about it for a second. "No, we can drink for free back at my place."
"Roger that." Brad slides out of the booth and lays some money on the table. Nate reaches for his own wallet, but Brad waves him off. "I got it."
They walk back, slower this time. Nate tries to store up what it feels like to feel like himself again; no throb in his temples or buzz at the base of his skull. Even the air feels crisp and fresh, instead of simply raw with cold on his throat. This is his second winter out of the Corps and here's Brad, treading over frozen ground next to him.
He grabs two beers from the fridge, passes one over, then sits down on the couch and kicks his socked feet up on the edge of the coffee table. "All right," he says, popping the tab on the can, "let's work it out. The situation is that we're both suffering from undesirable, adverse effects when not in some sort of contact with the other. Correct?"
"And our mission is to rectify the situation so that neither of us continue to suffer said effects. How do we do that?" He looks over at Brad, feeling at a loss. "I hope you have some ideas, because I'm fresh out."
Brad takes a long swallow of beer. "Maybe the question is: how did we end up in this situation to begin with? I've been turning it over in my mind ever since you left the Corps, Nate, and you know what I've come up with? Nothing. It's like it just - started." He moves slightly, so that his body is angled more towards Nate, and crosses his legs, ankle over knee. In doing so, he takes up more than half of Nate's rented couch. His knee bumps Nate's thigh.
Nate knows it's a calculated move. He knows that Brad is testing this, and he holds Brad's gaze as he moves his leg to bump back. Actual contact is like the scarf multiplied a hundred-fold, pleasure sparking down his spine. Nate wants to move into Brad's space as fiercely as he wants to deny the impulse.
"My emotions have slid so far up the scale that I can't pinpoint an acceptable reaction to any of this," he says after an uncomfortably long silence, in which he finishes his beer and crumples the can in his fist to stop from reaching out.
"Is there an acceptable reaction to our situation?"
"I can't even pinpoint our situation."
Brad scoffs. "Considering your level of higher learning, that's bordering on... well, unacceptable, Nate. Surely there's something like this in the Aenid."
"Are you making a joke? Right now, you're making a joke?" Nate asks, raising an eyebrow..
"Brought your blood pressure down a little, didn't it?"
"Only from the sheer disbelief."
Brad flashes a sharp grin, and Nate nudges him again. "But seriously, Brad."
"I don't know what the fuck you're aiming for here," Brad says, shaking his head. "I don't think you can SMEAC this. You sure as hell can't be objective about this. It's happening to us, so you can't be objective. I gave up on trying to look at this as an outsider after about five minutes of wearing the sweatshirt you sent back. I might not like it, but I accepted that it was happening. I don't know what to call it or how to define it, but it's sure as fuck happening to us."
His delivery is serene, and Nate wishes for another can to crush. "How can you be so goddamn calm about this?"
"If you could be inside my skin right now, you'd know I am way fucking far from calm." Brad leans forward, his eyes narrowing. "Nate, I don't - I don't feel like this about other men. Fuck, I rarely feel this way about anyone. Even if this is some curse we brought back from that godforsaken desert, that knowledge wouldn't stop my fingers from itching to touch you." He looks down at his hands, as if they're betraying him. Then his head snaps up and he looks Nate up and down. Nate's been looked at like that before, he knows what it means, and he knows why goosebumps rise on his arms. He can almost feel the weight of Brad's gaze, like it's filling up all the invisible fissures in his skin.
He doesn't know what to say, so he picks up the remote and turns on the television, fixing his eyes on the screen. After a moment, he feels Brad turn his body back square with the couch. They watch CNN in silence for fifteen minutes. Nate feels alternately glad that Brad is here and pissed off that they've yet to come to any sort of realization.
As the camera swings to Christiane Amanpour, Brad reaches over and takes the remote from Nate's hand. He mutes the set. "I'm sorry," he says quietly.
Nate looks over at him. "For what?"
"All of this. Hell, I'm sorry I came here."
Nate registers the feeling that accompanies Brad's statement as disappointment. "I'm not," he murmurs. "Look, now we know for sure, okay? Now I know for sure that I'm not suffering some goddamned PTSD symptoms no fucking doctor's ever heard of."
"Did you see a doctor?"
He knows that by doctor, Brad means shrink. "Fuck no."
"Me neither," Brad says with a wry grin, and a little of the tension eases.
Nate scrubs a hand over his face, suddenly exhausted. "I kept telling myself that as long as I continued wondering if I was crazy, it meant I wasn't, because only the sane can think they've gone psycho."
Eyes still closed, he feels Brad's fingers curl over his hand. "Truly, Nate," Brad says, "I wish we were seeing each other under less strange conditions."
Nate drops his hand from his face but doesn't shake off Brad's touch, and gives him a tired grin. "Me too. You want another beer?"
He goes to grab them, and when he returns and sits down, he leaves minimal distance between their bodies. It feels good; he feels warm, comfortable and safe, and the part of him that always feels like it's searching for Brad is silent. "Tell me about the second tour."
Brad speaks in low tones, describing what had happened to Morel in precise and measured words. The cadence of his voice doesn't waver. He walks Nate through the entire ambush, and when he reaches the end, he says, "There was a very large part of me that was exceedingly grateful that it wasn't you, and I felt terrible for it."
Nate remembers the first few things that had crossed his mind when he'd heard about the KIA - it could have been me, I could have died out there, any one of the Marines I care about could have died out there.
"I wasn't in a very good place when Cara called me with the news," he says finally. "I would have been in an even worse place if it had been someone in the platoon who had been there with me. I think I would already have known if it had been you, Brad. I don't think I would have needed to answer the phone to know." The very idea chills him to the core and he shivers. He rests the back of his hand against the side of Brad's thigh, and the feeling eases.
Brad nods. He unmutes the television, a sure sign that he's done talking, and changes the channel. They watch ESPN in silence through the day's highlights, then the first quarter of the All-Star game repeat. Nate glances at his watch.
"I have a morning class," he says, "and reading to finish beforehand."
"I could sleep," Brad volunteers. "Been awake since three."
Nate doesn't bother asking why. After another moment of silence, he says, "I have an extravagantly large bed, one which I am assured is quite out of proportion with the size of this apartment."
He half expects Brad to make a joke, but instead Brad turns off the television. "Lead on."
The bed takes up a good two-thirds of the bedroom, and he'd been too groggy this morning to care about making it. "Hey, my pillowcase," Brad says with a grin. "Did it work?"
"Great." Brad strips down to his undershirt and boxers, then tilts his head in obvious question. "Right side or left?"
"It doesn't matter to me." Nate pulls his sweatshirt over his head, then climbs out of his jeans. He looks at Brad, then the bed, and then at Brad again, suppressing the laughter that threatens to bubble up. "I hope the mattress is long enough."
"Let's find out." Brad sits down, then scoots backwards a little before stretching out. He fits. "Even if my feet did hang over the edge, we've both slept in worse places."
"Truer words," Nate agrees. He switches off the main light and turns on the bedside lamp, picking up his book. If it were anyone but Brad, he would ask if they could sleep with the light on. Brad looks three-quarters gone already, hand tucked up underneath one of the pillows, eyes closed. Nate gets into the bed and opens his book.
He's nearly finished with the reading when Brad says, "It is exceptionally pleasing not trying to fall asleep with a pounding headache."
"Thought you'd passed out already."
"No. Enjoying feeling normal for a change." He shifts slightly. "Even though I can't actually remember what it felt like before - before this."
Nate marks his page and sets the book back on the stack. He's read enough that he'll be able to keep up tomorrow without problem. "I feel like with all the training we've had, all the money the Corps spent on us, we should be able to beat whatever this is," he says, the words tripping on a yawn.
"I'm not convinced that I want to," Brad murmurs. Nate looks at him in surprise. Brad meets his gaze, staring back at him from the pillow. "Have you considered that what's happened to us might not be something random?"
Nate bites his lip to stop the expression of disbelief that wants to lay claim to his face. "Are you suggesting - this is not at all how I thought your visit would be going."
Suddenly he's very aware of Brad's weight on the bed, aware of the fact that the sheets are warmer than they would be if he were here alone, aware that his own body wants to lean towards Brad's. "I need to think about this," he says lamely, the words inefficient. He turns off the light feeling flushed and confused, an odd ache in his chest.
He wakes an hour later, the pressure of his bladder reminding him of the beer he'd had, and finds they've curved towards each other in sleep. Brad's hand is warm on his thigh, and Nate realizes his own palms are resting lightly, not pushing, on Brad's chest.
It's not uncomfortable. It's almost - nice. He's not turned off by Brad's hand on his skin. Their ankles are sort of tangled, too. He can feel the thump of Brad's heartbeat, slow and steady. Nate would give serious thought to not moving at all if he didn't need the bathroom so urgently.
"You're coming back, right?" Brad mumbles as Nate gets out of the bed, and Nate assures him that he's just going to piss, then stumbles out of the room and down the hall to the bathroom. He takes care of his most pressing problem, yawning, and then stares at himself in the mirror above the sink as he shoves his hands under the running water. He looks the same as ever. He's not sure why he thinks the realization that he could find Brad attractive should make him look any different. He shrugs at himself and flicks off the overhead light.
Brad has moved halfway onto his back when Nate crawls into the bed again. He hesitates, unsure of where to put his limbs. Brad mutters, "Fick, come on," and pulls on his shirt.
Nate has directed his platoon into live-fire battle while blurry with overexhaustion and the haze of only five minutes' sleep in a rattling Humvee, but he's stumped by this. "Nate," Brad says again, in the rough, thick voice of someone barely awake. "Nate."
It's the way he says it that makes Nate move, sliding in close and settling their bodies together. Brad makes a soft, pleased sound. When Nate looks back to try and pinpoint the moment of his undoing, that second will be what he recalls.
He wakes up to noises from the kitchen: pots banging on the stove, the fridge door opening and closing, Brad swearing. Whatever Brad's doing, it smells good. Nate glances at the clock on the nightstand; it's only a few minutes past six. He turns off the alarm, which had been set for ten minutes from now, and gets out of bed.
"Where the hell are your coffee filters?" Brad asks when Nate walks into the kitchen. "I've checked every fucking drawer there is."
Nate grins and points to the two canisters next to the coffeemaker. "The one on the left. Don't give me that look, they were gifts from my mom. And don't say anything sarcastic about my mom, either."
Brad laughs and opens the canister.
"Can I help?" Nate asks.
Brad's answer is to tell him to sit down, and a plate of pancakes appears in front of him at the table. It's followed by a bottle of maple syrup that Nate didn't even know he had, and then Brad sits down across from him with his own plate.
Nate says thank you because it's the proper thing to say. If he were a more devious man, he'd make a crack about how Corporal Person better never catch wind of Brad's culinary skills, but it's still early and he's hungry and Brad is watching him cut into the pancakes like he needs to know for sure if they're edible or not.
"'s good," Nate says around a mouthful, because they are good. Brad looks pleased and they eat in silence until the coffee's done. He waves Brad off and pours them each a cup. "So do you make breakfast for everyone you sleep with, or just the people who leave their clothes on?"
"You say that like I have ever woken up in the morning with anyone besides my ex-fiancee. And now you."
Nate nods and returns focus to his breakfast. When he's done, he sets his plate in the sink. "You can leave the dishes, I'll clean up later. I need to get ready for school."
"Solid copy," Brad replies, in between bites.
Nate reclaims his blue sweater and wears it to class. When class is done, he walks to the grocery store and spends fifteen minutes and thirty bucks buying things he's not entirely sure Brad will like. He arrives back at his apartment a little after two, to find Brad lying on his back on the couch, watching one of the ESPN channels in his jeans and one of Nate's henleys. "Yachting, really?" Nate asks, raising an eyebrow. "And you give me shit about being Ivy League?"
"It's two in the afternoon on a Thursday. My choices are this or some soap opera, where the main character will no doubt turn out to be a schizophrenic bisexual having an affair with her secret half-brother and by the end of the episode will die in a boat explosion set up by her monstrously disfigured former best friend."
"You left out the part where she comes back from the dead next season with a new face," Nate says, and Brad gives him a slow grin that Nate would swear he feels all the way to his fingertips. He takes the groceries into the kitchen and puts them away, noting that Brad had washed the dishes. "Didn't I tell you to leave the mess?" he yells over his shoulder.
"You didn't make it an order." Brad looms in the doorway, his hands on the frame. "Besides, I was bored."
Nate wants to ask Do you want me to make things orders?, but instead says only, "Are you going to hang out here while I go to class all week?"
Brad shrugs. "I figure tomorrow I'll go explore the city. This is the first time I've been to Boston."
"I could give you the tour, if you want," Nate offers.
"I'm not here to interrupt your routines, Nate," Brad says, and Nate stares at him over the top of the fridge door. The corner of Brad's mouth pulls back and he huffs a laugh. "Not on purpose."
Nate closes the fridge and reaches out to put his hand on Brad's arm, just below the elbow. He says, "I don't mind."
Friday night, they don't bother with cooking, instead ordering what Nate considers an astronomical amount of pizza, cheesy bread, and buffalo chicken wings. "I hope your friends don't mind that I'm taking up all your free time this week," Brad says, as they sit on the living room floor surrounded by the delivery boxes.
"My acquaintances here have their own lives. It's not like undergrad, a different party every night. People want to get their shit done, get their diploma, and get a worthwhile job. It's why we're here, after all."
Brad favors him with a smile around a slice of pepperoni and olives. "You were made for better things than the Marine Corps," he says after he's chewed and swallowed.
"I didn't mean -"
Brad stops him. "I know what you meant."
Nate scrapes his breadstick around a mostly-empty cup of sauce. "Remember that bullshit moto speech that Captain Schwetje tried to give, before Al Hayy?"
"'Tried' being the imperative word. But yes."
"I remember wishing that he'd shut up so I could get three more fucking minutes of sleep. I remember this wish including a detailed fantasy about him being an accidental victim of Captain McGraw's pilfered AK."
"I believe at that point, Kocher had convinced Captain America to dispose of his found weaponry collection," Brad says dryly.
Nate rocks his foot back and forth, bumping Brad's ankle. "You tried to engage me afterward but I brushed you off."
"My feelings weren't hurt, if that's what you're after a whole two years later. I'm not a six year-old in a dress my mommy picked out, Nate, ready to cry when my pigtails get yanked."
Nate glares at him. "That is a godawful mental image."
"Besides, your hair isn't long enough for me to actually pull." He watches Brad swallow hard and tries to backpedal. "Brad - then - you could have said something to Person or Espera, or anyone other than me."
It's Brad's turn to glare. "You're taking a very, very long time to ask if this -" he gestures between them, "was happening for me even then."
Trust Brad to force him right to the point. He shouldn't be surprised. "Was it?"
"Yes. Not that I understood it at the time. There was - it was mostly a desire to keep you precisely where I could see you."
"All the time," Brad adds, his tone insistent. "It was a sticky thing to repress, given our combat situation."
"I always knew where you were. All the time."
Nate nods, licking ranch dressing off the side of his hand. He catches Brad's hungry look and feels himself flush, heat creeping along his cheekbones and the underside of his jaw. "Do you even realize the way you look at me?" he asks hoarsely. He reaches for his beer, draining the rest of it in two long swallows. This is getting way too close to what they've been avoiding.
Brad crumples the napkin he's holding. "Fuck, Nate, I can't apologize for this any more than I already have."
"I didn't say -"
"You can tell me to go and I'll catch the next plane back to San Diego -"
"No," Nate says sharply, slamming the empty bottle down onto the floor. "You're not fucking leaving, Colbert."
Brad tosses his slice of pizza back into the box and closes it with a grimace. "You're afraid of what would happen if I left like that."
That's part of it. "Yes."
Brad stands up and starts taking the leftovers into the kitchen, his appetite, like Nate's, either lost or forgotten. After a minute, Nate gets up and starts to help. They clean up in silence. Then Nate grabs Brad by the front of his shirt and drags him down on to the couch. "I don't have a fucking clue what we're doing," he says, "but it sure as hell feels better when I'm touching you."
Brad doesn't argue that point. It's a battle to arrange themselves comfortably, though, Brad's height making it impossible for both of them to stretch out. Nate starts to laugh after the second time he accidentally elbows Brad in the stomach and, after a moment, Brad starts to laugh too. "We're both so fucking retarded," he wheezes. Nate laughs harder, pressing his face into Brad's chest.
When he manages to catch his breath, he realizes they've ended up okay after all. He's mostly on top of Brad, but Brad doesn't protest, just reaches for the remote and starts flipping channels. The arm not aimed at the television is loose around Nate's waist. It's not a whole lot different from the way they've been falling asleep at night. Except for how Nate plans to stay awake like this for at least another few hours.
"Pick something, for fuck's sake," he mutters. "Before I order you to watch Lifetime or something equally as punishing." Brad chuckles, a low noise that vibrates through Nate's body. He decides to push it, and adds, "If you want orders, I'll be happy to oblige."
"Anything but Lifetime, sir," Brad murmurs, breath hitching almost imperceptibly. "Or whatever the fuck that other channel is. Oxygen."
"You mean you don't consider Mother, May I Sleep With Danger to be the classic that it is?"
"I am appalled that you know the name of any Lifetime movie. That's almost reason enough to for me to go to back to California."
Nate would list more, just to fuck with Brad, but that's the only one he knows. "You need to decide when to call me sir and when to call me Nate, because this interchangeable thing you're doing is sort of messing with my head."
Brad squints down at him. "Seriously?"
Brad hums, another vibration. He leaves the television on FX and drops the remote. That hand comes to rest on Nate's waist, the other sliding up to touch the nape of his neck. It's a slow journey, almost as if Brad's waiting for Nate to stop him.
Nate doesn't. "If you hadn't basically grown up in the military, wouldn't it strike you as weird to hear someone call their friend 'sir' in casual conversation?"
"That's implying we're friends." Brad's tone is the driest Nate's ever heard it. He resists the urge to do something painful to him. Brad continues, "And that's also implying, whether intentionally or not, that there are things outside of casual conversation where it would be appropriate for me to call you sir."
It takes Nate a minute. And then it takes him another few seconds to be able to breathe again. "You're into that?" he chokes out.
"I have no idea." Brad's hands tighten slightly. "This is - you are all new territory to me. I know what I like in bed with a woman who I'll never see again, and am possibly paying for their services, but you're none of those things. And I hope I'm not being presumptuous here, but if for some inexplicable and unforeseen reason I don't enjoy having sex with you, I'm going to be royally pissed off at whatever desert god has cursed us with this."
Nate swallows, his mouth suddenly parched. "I guess we'll continue figuring it out as we go along, then."
Nate turns most of his attention to Backdraft, occasionally skimming his thumb back and forth over Brad's collarbone. Talking about sex is ridiculous anyway; they haven't even kissed. He turns the thought over in his mind. In every relationship he's ever been in, kissing has always preceded sex. Even in the drunken college hookups, sloppy kissing had come before the fumbling removal or, on really fucked-up occasions, shoving aside of clothes.
For a fleeting moment, he feels cheated out of the first move by this conjunction, but that's pushed aside by the knowledge that he never would have made the first move, much less felt anything besides camaraderie towards Brad, without the insistence of it.
He moves his hand a little higher, wanting to feel the pulse in Brad's throat, but his shirt is in the way. So Nate moves it out of the way and puts his fingertips where he wants them. The touch on the back of his neck changes; he identifies it as Brad's knuckles, rubbing slowly up and down. Nate wants to press into it. So he does, and the long exhalation that escapes Brad's mouth is warm and damp on his skull. Desire coils high in his belly and then spreads, radiating out like a starburst crater, until Nate can feel it in every muscle and bone of his body.
He's not sure if he needs to ask or if he can take. And worse, there's a part of him that's stricken with the fear that if they have sex, the connection between them will be satisfied and disappear, leaving an ocean of awkwardness and the possibility of never speaking to each other again.
"Nate," Brad says. Nate looks up and Brad's mouth is right there, and all Nate's worries about not kissing disappear like his sense of direction in a shamal. He presses their mouths together without hesitation. Brad doesn't move at all, and Nate's sure that he's got beer-and-pizza breath. Then Brad makes a small noise and kisses back, swipes the tip of his tongue over Nate's lower lip before saying clearly, "I know you've got mouthwash around here somewhere, sir, but that would involve moving, so you'll have to deal with pepperoni."
Again with the rogue sir. But Nate thinks he's got Brad figured out this time - it's Nate when Brad is being casual, or feels comfortable, but the sir is all about uncertainty. "That's acceptable," he replies, moving to find Brad's mouth again and forgetting about the movie.
Brad responds with enthusiasm, one hand cupping the back of Nate's head, the other sliding up and down Nate's spine with no great haste, mapping out each vertebrae with his fingertips.
When they draw apart, Nate's lips are tingling and swollen, and if Brad's neck is worth judging by, they've marked each other up pretty well with beard burn. "Okay, I think kissing goes in the agreeable column," he manages to say, and skims Brad's lower lip with his teeth.
"An understatement if I've ever heard one. Do you have any more things you'd like to try?"
"We only just got to this point," Nate replies, incredulous.
"But you have thought about it." Brad's hands shift again on his back. "No, don't answer that, Nate. I think I get it. You can't judge which part of this is what you actually feel and what's the thing we picked up in Iraq."
"You say it like we've got some disease."
"I don't know what the fuck else to call it."
"Me neither," Nate admits. "But you're right. I don't know what's me and what's not. And -" he jabs Brad in the chest, "what makes you think I'll fuck on the first date?"
Brad's grin is razor sharp.
"Brad. Let's get used to this first."
"Yeah," Brad exhales. "That's probably the best and most logical idea. I guess that's why you were in charge."
The food and the beers are catching up with him, and Nate is suddenly tired of talking. He finds a comfortable spot for his head on Brad's shoulder and says, "Either watch the whichever Baldwin this is fight some fires, or find something else that's on, but either way, it's time for you to shut up."
Brad presses a kiss to his temple and shuts up as directed.
Brad leaves on Tuesday morning. They stand in the doorway, looking at each other as they wait for the taxi. Nate feels awkward. "Let me know you make it home all right," he says, and Brad gives him that don't be stupid, sir look; it's only one of the many Nate learned to read in the desert. "What?" he asks.
"It's not home any longer." Brad puts his hands on Nate's hips and yanks him close.
"You don't need to say those things to me," Nate says firmly, curling his palm around the back of Brad's neck.
Brad nods but doesn't let go of him.
Part of Nate is convinced that once Brad is gone, everything will immediately revert to how it was previously and this week will feel like a strange, wonderland dream, the kind that feels real while he's dreaming it, and where it's not obvious how turned around everything is until he wakes up. Then again, Nate sometimes dreams that he wakes up and he's still underneath his humvee in Iraq as mortars fall around him.
The taxi horn honks outside. Nate kisses Brad quickly once more, then opens the door. They nod at each other and Brad walks out into the cold air. Nate watches him get into the taxi. Then he closes the door gently, focusing on small sounds. The click of the latch. The heavy thud of the deadbolt. His own ragged breath.
Nate gives it a minute, then pulls himself together and goes to get ready for class.
Things are okay for a while. The buzz in his skull doesn't immediately return, and neither do the headaches. The urge to touch Brad, to kiss him until neither of them can breathe, fades out like smoke in a strong wind, disappearing not long after he goes back to California, leaving Nate to wonder if it had been some sort of shared madness, or if the curse has been satisfied for a while. It's two weeks before he starts to feel Brad's absence with any sort of regularity. They talk on the phone almost every night and Nate assumes that's helping. He gets used to coming home from his evening class and calling Brad, trading unremarkable stories about their days and watching whatever game that's on together. It's comforting and familiar, like friends, like buddies. Nate can deal with this.
Then there's a night where he wakes with a start, his heart pounding, absolutely sure that something has happened to Brad. He feels nauseous and dizzy as he fumbles for the phone, pressing buttons in the dark. He has to start over twice before getting all the right ones. It doesn't even click that Brad might not answer until the familiar words of his voicemail greeting begin, the cadence of his voice eliciting the same reaction in Nate that it always does, but not enough to quell his panic. He leaves a shaky, half-pleading message and hangs up, then rolls onto his back.
He stares up at the ceiling for the next three hours, the phone cradled up next to his ear like it's radio watch. When it finally trills, there's a text message. sprained wrist/ two weeks desk duty. apologies if I worried you.
It's classic Iceman. Nate wants to say, I wasn't worried, I was terrified, or maybe that he's completely at a loss as to how this connection between them wants to work, but instead simply sends ok and stares up at the ceiling again.
For another half hour, he tries to shake off the feeling of having completely overreacted, but can't, and at four in the morning, he ties on his go-fasters and hits the pavement, shivering in the cold. The sun doesn't rise until he hits the third mile. By then, he's made up his mind. He double-checks the calendar and buys an airline ticket the minute he gets home.
When the plane touches down, Nate glances at the woman sitting next to him, who looks back at him in shock. "Your, um, your nose is bleeding," she says.
He lifts two fingers to his face. They come away red with blood and he fumbles for the airline napkin that he'd tucked into the pocket on the back of the seat in front of him.
In the airport bathroom, he cleans up as best he can, but when Brad opens the door to his condominium, his eyes narrow. "I knew something was off. What happened?"
"Nosebleed," Nate says, feeling sheepish.
"Huh. That's new," Brad says in wonder. He moves out of the way to let Nate inside. "The whole flight?"
"No, I don't think so. Just when the plane landed. I didn't even realize until the woman next to me said something. Maybe it was the dry air in the cabin."
Brad doesn't look convinced.
"I'm fine," Nate insists. He slides out of his ruck and sets it on the floor. "Are you - is it okay that I'm here?" he asks, wondering for the first time since buying the ticket if coming here was a bad idea.
Brad nods. "Trying decide where to put my hands on you first is all, sir."
Nate steps into his space, fists a hand in Brad's t-shirt. "Can I help you make that decision?"
Brad tilts his head, an eyebrow quirking, and Nate can't help but laugh. "It's Spring break," he informs Brad. "My flight back is on Saturday, since I have a family breakfast thing on Sunday that I am not allowed to skip. Additionally, I hope you don't mind that I brought all my homework. It's taking up eighty percent of my bag, so I'll have to borrow some of your clothes."
"How is that at all different from our usual?" Brad is smiling, and Nate tilts his head up, inviting the kiss. Brad's lips are warm, tasting of some fruit-flavored gum, but not as demanding as Nate knows he could be. Like he's letting Nate lead. So Nate takes the opportunity, explores Brad's mouth with his tongue, noting how Brad's grip on him grows tighter and tighter.
Brad breaks first, bending to rest their foreheads together. "Fuck, Nate," he breathes, warm on Nate's cheek, and Nate grins. "Fine, maybe I missed that a little."
Nate kisses him again, and not any gentler. "How's the wrist?"
"Healing up just fine."
"Don't you ever get hurt for real," Nate tells him, aware that his voice is dark and low. He looks straight into Brad's eyes. "Don't."
"That bad?" Brad asks, drawing back slightly, confusion slipping across his face.
"Can I do anything?"
"Proof of life," Nate requests, and Brad gives him a crooked grin before initiating another kiss. Then another, and another, and then Nate takes two steps forward, using the movement of his entire body to push Brad back into the entryway wall. He bites gently at Brad's neck, licks salt from the hollow of his throat, and then sets his forehead against Brad's shoulder. They stand like that, motionless, until Nate feels calm again and can move back.
"That was interesting, sir," Brad says, one eyebrow lifted. Nate rolls his eyes and Brad chuckles. "Would you like the tour?"
Nate answers in the affirmative, and follows Brad through the house. Afterwards, they drive out to Oceanside for Mexican food from the place that Nate is not ashamed to admit he misses desperately. Brad tips the neck of his Corona bottle at him. "Should have gone to grad school out here," he says with a grin.
"Harvard." Nate dunks a tortilla chip in the fresh salsa. "You never wanted to go to college?"
"Did you ever want to do anything besides join the Marines?"
Brad seems to think about it for a moment, fork poised above his plate. "When I was eight, I wanted to be an archaeologist. But that was only because I was obsessed with Indiana Jones."
These are the kind of little details that Nate wants to know. "Really? And what, then you found out for real what archaeologists do?"
"Then I realized that Indy never would have made it as a Recon Marine. Those Nazis would never even have known we were there." Brad jabs his fork down into his enchiladas.
Nate decides that this part of Brad could be endlessly entertaining and smiles to himself. "All right, so what fictional character would have made it?"
Nate nods and picks up one of his tacos, taking a huge bite, his eyes on Brad as Brad considers the question through several mouthfuls of food.
"Obi-Wan Kenobi," Brad announces finally. "But not Anakin Skywalker."
"That's a goddamned given," Nate replies, reaching for his beer. "Bruce Wayne would have been Team Leader of the Year every year."
Brad grins. "Ellen Ripley, if she was a dude."
"I'll allow it. Who else?"
"Rick Deckard," Brad says after another minute.
"But he was really a Replicant," Nate counters. "If you pick Deckard, then you have to allow all the Terminators, and I think we're going down the wrong path there. Also, your childhood is showing." He smiles widely at Brad's scoff.
This is going okay. Somehow they'd managed to sidestep the awkwardness that Nate had been convinced would rear its head. For now, he's going to reject the idea that he'd caught Brad on a good day, one where he felt social and companionable, and agreeable to what's going on between them.
Nate knows there's some days where it's hard to feel agreeable towards things. "John Connor, though?" he suggests.
"Future John Connor, maybe. Once he's the leader of the fucking Resistance."
"That's a given, too. You know they're talking about making another one?"
"Isn't Hollywood always making another one of something?" Brad asks, mixing his rice into the refried beans, glancing up at Nate quickly as he does.
Nate nods. "Point." He closes his fingers around the warm tortilla of his next taco. Underneath the table, Brad's foot slides along his, pressing together the skin left bare by sandals, and Nate pauses with the taco held mid-air, raising an eyebrow in Brad's direction.
Brad's face is perfectly calm, but then the corner of his mouth twitches. Nate makes a mental note of that obvious tell, shakes off one of his sandals, and runs his toes up Brad's calf. Then he returns to his food, ignoring Brad's slightly startled cough.
He wakes to the light press of Brad's mouth against his own slack lips. "Huh?"
"Gotta go to work, baby. You go ahead and sleep in, I don't mind," Brad whispers. Laughter is bright and clear in his words. "Enjoy your Spring break."
Nate makes futile half-asleep hand gestures, meant to convey that it's too fucking early and Brad should get back in the bed.
"Sorry," Brad says, no longer laughing. "I really do have to leave for the base. You want me to tell the guys you're in town?"
"If you're up for it." Telling the platoon that Nate is here will likely mean a long, loud night of heavy drinking, and not the quiet enjoyment of each other's presence like they had in Boston. It will also mean the inevitable question of why Nate is here, spending his week's vacation from grad school with the Iceman, and not partying with topless co-eds in the Keys.
Brad looks indecisive, or maybe that's Nate's lingering sleep haze. "I'll call you with a heads-up if plans are even discussed, all right?"
"Solid copy," Nate murmurs. He tugs Brad in for another kiss before saying, "All right, go, before I decide I want to cash in my one former commander favor and call you out sick."
Brad snorts and leaves. Nate rolls onto his back, stretching out against the sheets. The bed smells like Brad. Nate realizes with a start that he'd know that scent anywhere now. In the vast expanse of an empty desert or in the center of a crowded room. It's a heavy thought, the idea that his senses would automatically seek Brad out without direction from his brain, even though it's already been happening for years. He thinks back to his paddle party, how he'd spent half the night touching Brad in casual ways and not realizing it until much, much later. How his last few weeks in the Corps had hurt like hell because he was riding a desk while his platoon was off at the desert warfare school, turning Ambush Alley into lessons for the next wave. Nate's sure now that he'd just fucking coasted through those last few weeks, bogged down by something he hadn't even been close to understanding at the time.
He shoves it all away and gets out of the bed. In the kitchen, he finds the coffee still hot and pours himself a cup. Brad's condo is sparse, everything white except for the dark polished wood of the furniture and the battered leather couch. There are a few pictures on one wall. Nate recognizes a number of them as ones Evan Wright had shot in Iraq, and is sort of shocked to find his own face in a handful of them. He wonders who else has been in Brad's house, who else has looked at these pictures.
He figures out how to operate Brad's home-wired stereo system, and rifles through the alphabetized CD collection. His fingers skid to a halt at 'M', and he settles in to finish some assignments to the familiar noise of Ride the Lightning, belting out the occasional chorus.
He finishes the things that he's sure he won't be able to concentrate enough to do next week when he's home, eats lunch, goes a few rounds with the punching bag hanging from the ceiling in the bedroom, and takes a long shower. (The shower also smells like Brad.) He's sacked out on the couch watching Judge Judy when he hears Brad's key turn in the lock. Footsteps, and then a hand is skimming over his head.
"You know, sir, I thought for sure you'd grow your hair out at that liberal hippie dick-suck school."
"Did you know that a lot of so-called hippies grew up to be moderate Republicans?" Nate questions in reply. "And you better hope I'm not engaging in any dick-sucking at school. Besides, I look about twelve years old with hair any longer than this."
"Ah. Contrary to the rumor that Ray tried very hard to spread, I'm not actually into twelve year-old boys, so I must encourage you to continue with your current grooming standard."
Nate laughs and moves so Brad can sit down. "So no bar-hopping with the platoon tonight?"
"No, but I did let slip to Poke that you might be in town for a day or two. A barbecue invitation has thus been extended, should you feel like spending Thursday night drinking shitty Mexican beer while two little girls try to drown you in a pool that takes up their entire postage stamp of a backyard."
Nate pretends to think about it. "Corona or Dos Equis?" Brad fixes him with a look, and he laughs. "Did you come up with a respectable reason for my being in town?"
"I said you were up in L.A., looking at the Political Economy and Public Policy doctorate program at USC." Nate feels his jaw drop, but Brad keeps talking. "Should I have gone with the Ph.D. in leadership studies at the University of San Diego? I thought that one sounded a little too gay. Leadership studies. Like OCS wasn't enough. "
Nate cuts him off. "Brad. Did you research doctoral programs in Southern California after I fell asleep last night, just so you'd have a cover story?"
"I pulled a few websites up on my phone this morning." Brad looks like it's the most obvious thing in the world. "Nate, I had to have a reason why you'd even be in this part of the country, much less this part of California -"
"What the fuck are we going to tell people if this doesn't go away?" Nate blurts out, the words flying from his mouth before he even thinks about them, each one more heated than the next. He's unused to this desperate feeling, like it's hard to draw enough air into his lungs. "What am I going to tell my parents and sisters? What are you going to tell your parents? My friends? Your friends? The Corps?"
Brad snaps to attention, all emotion disappearing from his face. His throat works as he swallows. He's staring straight at Nate, but Nate knows he's really staring past him. He'd done it himself to countless senior officers and instructors. Nate pushes on, because he can't stop himself now. "It's not like you can go where I go, or I can go where you go."
"I don't know," Brad says, his voice sharp.
"Why did you even bother saying I was here?"
"Because I was happy that you were," Brad says coolly, standing up. He doesn't look at Nate, and his shoulders are rigid. "I'm going for a ride. I need to clear my head. Whether you're still here or not when I get back, I don't care."
Nate flinches uncontrollably. He knows the dark look on his face has to be ugly. Brad's out the door before he can formulate a reply that's anything besides an order for Brad not to move, and even though he's pissed off, Nate doesn't want to go down that road right now. They've been careless in not discussing these things before reaching to this point. These sticky, real-life relationship things. Nate's no good at keeping secrets from his family, especially this kind. He likes taking his girlfriends to cookouts at his parents', double-dating with his sisters and their boyfriends.
But none of his girlfriends have been older, taller, or more importantly, male enlisted Marines. Of course Brad wouldn't tell Tony why Nate was really here. He rubs a hand over his head, wishing Brad hadn't left so that they could talk this out. Then he stands and collects his books and laptop, repacking his bag. When Brad gets back, if he still wants Nate to go, Nate will go. But he wants to hear out loud that he's not welcome.
He sets his things by the door and sits at the kitchen table, waiting. Forty-eight minutes pass before he hears the garage door open and Brad says, "You're still here."
His tone of voice that leads Nate to believe Brad hadn't so much wished he'd leave, as been taught by experience that Nate would likely be gone. Nate feels shitty on behalf of anyone who'd left Brad like that. While he still hasn't gotten the entire ex-fiancee story (at least, not from Brad himself), it's obvious that while the wound is no longer fresh, it's still deep, still stinging.
He turns his head slightly, looking at Brad standing in the doorway. "I will only go if you truly want me to."
"Is it unfair of me to say that I don't know what I want?"
Nate gives him a sad smile. "It's probably the first time in your life that you don't know what the fuck you want."
"True, sir." Brad doesn't move.
"Do you want me to go?"
"I believe I do."
Nate nods. "Call me if you want to talk about this," he says quietly, and leaves.
This time it does hurt, in odd ways.
The headache returns with a vengeance, positively screaming, encompassing his entire skull. Motrin only goes so far this time, and Nate's not about to go looking for anything stronger. He forces himself to work through it. He even takes two exams with it roaring in his brain, and somehow passes both of them.
Other things are different, though. Colors are brighter. Lights have halos. Sometimes these things intersect, and he sees strange auras around everything. He almost, almost calls his mother to ask her professional advice, but refrains.
Brad does call, four days after Nate gets home. Nate looks at the display for a moment, trying to decide if he wants to answer. Then he hits talk. "Hey."
There's a long pause, and then Brad says, "I don't have a goddamned clue what I am right now."
Nate figures that's fair, and tells him as much. He can hear Brad's answering scoff and the tops of his shoulders tighten in anger. "Hey," he snaps. "Now we know what it's like when we're fighting it, as well as what it's like when we're giving in. You can make an informed choice now, Brad."
Another pause. He can hear Brad inhale before saying, "I don't know why I called."
"Fine," Nate says coolly, feeling anything but. "I'm hanging up now."
"No, wait. That came out all fucking wrong. I'm fucking terrible at conversations, okay? And conversations like this are the worst. We're talking about the most serious thing that's happened to me in the last ten years and we're not doing it face to face, and I don't know how to say the right thing."
Nate close his eyes for a second, then replies, "There is no right thing to say. And - ten years?"
"Yes. And it's likely to be the most serious happenstance of the rest of my life. So if you could - let me have some time."
"Of course." Nate says it automatically. "All the time you need."
He does mean it. He knows that Brad is used to being alone. And Brad had at least called, and despite how uncomfortable he sounds, seems to be trying to tell Nate that it's not entirely over.
"I do miss you," Brad murmurs before he hangs up.
Nate sighs and sets the phone down. He feels restless and his anger is uneasy. It pulls from low in his gut. He wants to do all sorts of childish things, but he can't stamp his feet and demand an answer right this second. All he can do is wait.
He's got a paper due tomorrow that he should finish. Instead, he puts on running shorts and a t-shirt that he thinks might be Brad's, and goes out to run until there are no thoughts at all left in his head, and all he can hear is the steady pounding of his feet on pavement.
Nate doesn't intend for "Oh, thank God," to be the first thing he says when he opens the door right before noon and sees Brad standing there, but that's what comes out of his mouth. It's only been two weeks, but it's felt like six to Nate. If not more.
Brad looks tired. Haggard even, painfully sleepless hours obvious in the shadows underneath his red-rimmed eyes, in the way his skin looks like it's stretched too tight over his skull. Nate knows that, for some reason, long flights are the worst of all. Even when they're flying towards each other. And everything, even the smallest things, have been worse since Nate left California.
"I know I've shown up unexpectedly, but aren't you going to invite me in?" Brad asks.
Nate reaches forward and takes Brad's bag from his unresisting hand, then pulls him inside by his wrist. Even that small touch of skin on skin makes him shiver with want. He steers Brad down the hall to the bedroom. "You're exhausted. We'll discuss everything later," he says, and he pushes Brad gently towards the bed.
Brad goes without argument and strips off most of what he's wearing before falling onto the bed. His eyes close before his head even reaches the pillow. Nate shimmies out of his own jeans. He stretches out next to Brad, pressing his toes to Brad's ankle, and shuts his eyes. It's blissfully silent and he's asleep in seconds.
It's mid-afternoon when Nate wakes up to sunlight slanting across his eyes. He's disoriented at first, not used to taking a nap mid-day, but the weight next to him on the bed and the absence of a headache remind him why he had. He rolls on to his side and sees Brad blink at him. "Hey."
"Hey." Brad's hand hovers for a brief second before curling over Nate's bicep. Nate smiles at him to let him know it's okay, and Brad smiles back. "It was a long flight. Three takeoff delays, and then we circled for two hours before landing."
"It stormed this morning." He clears his throat. "How long can you stay?"
"Only until Sunday, and my flight's at dawn."
That's not even three days. Nate's stomach clenches. "And then what? You go home, and we see each other once every six months, and we argue about the same fucking things every time? Or we don't see each other at all, and hope that this goes away? And fail to live any sort of normal life in the meantime?"
"I haven't signed my reenlistment papers yet, Nate."
Nate bites the inside of his cheek to stop the shocked expression that wants to surface. "You can't do that for me," he says, knowing his voice sounds weak. "I won't ask you to. I don't want you to factor me in to that decision."
"I need you to know that if I reenlist - they're sending us to the South Pacific, and then most likely Pakistan."
Nate presses his palms against his closed eyes.
"I made it through the last deployment," Brad reminds him, and his hands cover Nate's.
That was before, Nate wants to say. "Yeah."
"If I know I can come home to you, I can make it through this one. What would I do without the Corps?" There's genuine confusion in the question, like he's never pictured any sort of civilian life.
Nate can't picture Brad without the Corps, or the Corps without Brad. "I think you've already made up your mind; you just wanted to run it by me."
"I needed to see you to remind myself that there was another option besides signing. I'm factoring you in whether you want me to or not."
"I'm not going to talk you out of it," Nate says firmly.
"That doesn't mean I didn't want to tell you face to face. And it's still going to hurt like fucking hell to be that far away from you."
"I'm told that sharing clothes helps immensely, and I have some socks you're welcome to borrow. And hats. I think there's a watch cap around here somewhere." He's trying for levity and probably failing, although there's a faint smile pulling at the furthest corner of Brad's mouth as he ducks in for a kiss. Nate grabs him and hauls him closer, trying to get as much of his body against Brad's as he can.
Brad squirms. Nate can feel the restless energy under his skin, his frantic pulse. "I need to know I can come back to you," he murmurs, his lips moving over Nate's skin, his hands pushing up the sides of Nate's shirt a little, fingertips seeking skin. "I can, right?"
"I've got two years left here," Nate reminds him, sliding his hands up the back of Brad's shirt to trace the lines of his tattoos.
Brad hums, counters with "It's been almost two years already," and his teeth sink down onto Nate's collarbone.
Nate arches up against him, pressing his open mouth to Brad's temple, breathing damp against the side of Brad's face. He works his hands the rest of the way up Brad's spine and cups the back of his neck. "Yeah," he whispers, "you can come home to me."
Brad stills, heavy against him. Then he rolls off of Nate, mumbling, "I'm gonna use the shower."
Nate nods. The drag of Brad's skin over his as he moves away makes him shiver, as does the rush of cooler air that fills the empty space. He scrunches the pillow behind his back and sits up, feeling overly alert, like all his senses are heightened. There's a vague scent of sweat, the sunlight is almost too bright, and he can see the dust motes that hang in the air.
Deployment. Obviously being apart isn't going to kill them, or be anything worse than an annoying, occasionally painful nuisance. Nate knows he can live with the headaches and the buzzing in his ears. He'd rather not, but he knows himself and he thinks he knows Brad. Neither of them had ever done anything because it was easy. They'd only ever done what was hard.
There's a wooden box he keeps on top of his dresser where he tosses loose change and crumpled dollar bills, random things that collect in his pockets during the day, keys he doesn't use often like the ones to his sisters' apartments. The aluminum horseshoe is in there, strung on a cleaner piece of parachute cord than he'd worn it home on, and he fishes it out from amid the various coins.
"Hey," he says, when Brad comes out of the bathroom with a towel knotted around his waist. "There's something I'd like you to have."
Brad raises an eyebrow in response. Nate holds out the horseshoe, swinging from his hand, and continues. "It's brought me luck. It belonged to my grandfather - he was hit with shrapnel in the second World War, and he had all the little pieces melted together into this. If you want to wear it, I mean."
Brad nods and sits down on the bed. "Tie it on for me?"
Nate does, climbing up behind him on his knees. Brad's skin is still damp from the shower. He ties a secure knot and sits back on his bare heels when he's done. He sees Brad lift a hand and touch the horseshoe, but other than that, he doesn't move. "Thank you," he says after a long moment of silence.
Nate squeezes his shoulder in reply.
Brad turns his head, still fingering the pendant. "I got you a plane ticket for the first weekend in June. I hope it wasn't presumptuous of me."
Sometimes Nate can't help but marvel at how awkward and austere they still are around one another. For guys who have seen each other at their worst - seen each other do all sorts of things that an ordinary person would avoid seeing someone else do, and avoid being seen doing - he feels like they don't know how to accept each other at their best. Exceptional situations are the only ones they know how to navigate with competence. Ordinary things are still beyond them.
He knows that Brad's unused to not being alone, something Nate has yet to fully understand. He's not afraid to admit that loneliness is a frightening concept to him, and the idea that it could be anyone's usual state, much less someone he cares about, is unimaginable.
He realizes Brad is waiting for him to answer, and does. "Not at all. My internship doesn't start until the middle of the month."
"Good." There's a pause, then Brad stands up. "I'm going to get dressed now."
Nate nods and gets off the bed. He pulls his jeans back on and heads for the door. "I didn't say you had to leave the room," Brad calls after him.
Nate waves him off, checking the clock and then mentally running through his schedule for the rest of the day. Talk about cutting it close. He's got a 4:10 class he's going to be late for if he doesn't get on his bike in the next ten minutes. He shoves a handful of granola bars into his bag, checks to be sure his texts and notebooks are in order, then yells to Brad that he'll be back from class around seven and they can get dinner then.
Brad yells an acknowledgement, and Nate slings his bag over his body and dashes out the door.
Nate's ticket to and from the San Diego airport is barely twenty-four hours turnaround. Arrive, say goodbye, and leave again. He figures that's about what he should expect from Brad. He sleeps on the plane and there are no nosebleeds this time.
Brad meets him at the door in PT gear, an expectant look on his face. "Let's run, sir," he says.
Nate groans, but goes to change, and they go out into the warm morning sunlight. He's not quite at the same level of physical fitness he was while he was in service, but he lets Brad lead and manages to keep up. Mostly.
By the time they're done, he's ready to collapse. "I'm not used to the heat anymore," he gasps, as Brad unlocks the door and shoves him inside, muttering about how civilian life is making Nate soft, and how that just won't do.
"You're such a fucker," Nate pants, but he smiles through it, and puts his hands on Brad's sweat-damp back just to touch him as they walk through the house.
Brad opens the fridge and gets them each a bottle of water. Nate cracks it open, then wipes his hand on his shirt. "You're crazy for running six miles the same day you leave," he says to Brad.
Brad simply smiles broadly at him in response and tips up his bottle. Suddenly, Nate feels incredibly alone. He remembers the nights before his own deployments. Now he's the one staying behind.
"You know what any sane person would call being unable to be away from someone?" he asks. "They'd call it being in love."
"I am in love with you," Brad replies, in the tone of voice that implies he thinks Nate is seriously not sane, and maybe even the stupidest person on the planet right now. He turns to dig some energy bars out of a box and tosses one to Nate, who fumbles as he catches it. "Are you coming to the send-off tonight?"
"I - what?"
Brad repeats his question, even though he has to know that's not what Nate's stuck on. He raises his eyebrows at Nate over his food.
"I don't know if that's a good idea," Nate says, chewing. "Wait. Let me put that another way. I don't know if I can say goodbye to you with everyone there." Brad nods like it's what he was expecting Nate to say. "But I'll drive you to the base."
Deployments always start at the oddest, darkest hours, and there's still half a day left before he'll have to watch Brad walk away. "Come lie down with me for a while?" Brad asks quietly. "I should sleep before this all starts."
He knows it's a smart idea and nods. They strip out of their workout clothes and Brad hands him a worn t-shirt that Nate tugs down over his head. "You know, the first time we came back, I slept naked for a week," Brad says, "just because I could."
"That sounds like a good enough reason to me." Nate lies down next to him on the bed, sliding an arm around Brad's waist and pressing his face between Brad's shoulderblades. "Get some sleep."
The room is all late-afternoon shadows when Nate wakes up alone in the bed. For a brief moment he thinks that Brad has left without saying goodbye and he grips the sheets tightly in his fists. But then he sees Brad walk past the bedroom door, and makes himself let go. "I'm going to shower," he yells to Brad, "unless you want it."
Brad calls back that he already did, and so Nate goes ahead.
Afterward, he wipes off a portion of the steamy mirror so that he can see to shave, and digs the razor out of his travel case. "Old habits die hard, huh?" Brad asks, leaning in the doorway.
"More like old habits just don't die," Nate chuckles in reply.
Brad steps into the small space. "Let me do it."
Wordlessly, Nate hands over the razor and can of shaving cream. He turns slightly to lean against the countertop and Brad steps in so that his feet are between Nate's feet. Nate can feel the warmth of his body.
Brad gives him a slight smile and depresses the button on the can of shaving cream, dispensing it into his palm. Then strong fingers spread the foam quickly over Nate's neck, cheeks and jaw. Nate can't decide whether to close his eyes or to watch Brad's face. He settles for keeping his eyes half-open, tracking the way Brad's features convey sharp concentration.
Brad works the razor using long, smooth strokes, fingertips tipping Nate's head in different directions as he goes. He turns the water on behind Nate's back and reaches around him to rinse off the razor every few seconds. Nate has the odd impulse to hold his breath.
Brad ducks down a little as the razor glides over Nate's throat, and Nate stays perfectly still even though he wants to swallow, because Brad's thigh has slipped even further between his own, and the difference in their heights is just enough that the pressure is right on Nate's groin.
Brad has to know. Brad also has to know that Nate is exceptional at self-control, and had done two tours without resorting to a combat jack that wasn't at a camp with an actual name and inside a private stall of some sort.
The razor is rinsed once more, then he yields to the press of Brad's hand as his head is tilted back and forth and Brad's critical gaze takes in his work. "Done, sir."
Nate clears his throat. "Thank you."
He doesn't move. Brad reaches around him to turn off the tap, the whole length of his torso pressed against Nate's, but doesn't step away when the water's stopped. "When I come back," he murmurs in Nate's ear, "we're going to bed and I'm not letting you out of it for days. Nudity will be required, as well as condoms and lube. And takeout menus, so that food is brought right to our door." He takes a step back and looks straight into Nate's eyes. "Unless you change your mind about this."
It's the most Brad has said all day. Somehow, Nate manages to keep his voice level as he replies, "You can be assured that I won't."
Teeth close gently over his earlobe. "Then, as you would say, sir - I am assured of it."
Nate grins and pulls Brad in for a thorough kiss.
Two hours later, Nate's about to shift the car into reverse when Brad says, "Hold on, I left something inside," and opens the car door and gets out. In the porch light, Nate watches him go inside the house, and then reappear seconds later. "We can go now."
Nate drives carefully, knowing Brad is watching how Nate is handling his car. They don't speak until Nate puts it in park again, having been waved into the base by a corporal he doesn't recognize. "I'll mail you anything you need," he says, as Brad pulls his bag from the backseat into the front.
"Thanks, but I think I've done this enough that I've got it covered." Brad gives him a tired smile, presumably to show there's no meanness to his words. "Nate."
"I'll miss you," Nate murmurs, meaning it. His hand finds Brad's and they both squeeze tight. "Whatever you do while you're out there - I don't care as long as you come back safe to me, all right?"
Brad glances out the back windshield; Nate can tell he's judging the distance of the car from the others parked a few rows away. Then he leans in, his breath warm on Nate's face. "I'm not going to go looking for a repeat of the migraine and vomiting episode, sir, you can be assured."
"Then I am assured." In the dark of the car, Nate kisses him once, a long press of mouths, and feels Brad's hand come up to cup his neck. Then Brad pulls back. Nate hears the click of the door opening. "Bye."
"It's not goodbye," Brad replies. His knuckles drag down Nate's jaw, and then he gets out of the car, closes the door firmly, and walks away without looking back.
Nate watches him disappear towards the parade deck, where everyone else is staging. It's not until the outline of Brad's body is completely out of sight that he realizes he's been holding his breath. With a sigh, he tugs his hoodie close around him in the chill and starts the car again. Flipping on the radio for the noise, he follows the route back to San Luis Rey.
On the kitchen table is a thick manila envelope, the name of a local law firm in the left-hand corner. Next to it is a small white box on top of a piece of computer paper. This must have been what Brad had run back inside to do. Nate slides the paper out from under the box.
Nate, the note begins. This was supposed to be my wedding ring. I never understood what possessed me to keep it until now. Wear it or don't, but it's yours. I also changed some paperwork. Since you're the closest thing I have to anything and my mother always said she found it fucking depressing that she was my beneficiary. She was pleased when I informed her that I was putting you in my will. Yes, I told my mother about us. It was incredibly awkward.
If anything happens to me - I trust you to do the right things with what I leave behind.
I know this isn't what we would have chosen for ourselves had we been given a goddamned say in our fate. I know, even if you never say it, that you think I came to terms with this much easier than you did. Trust that I fought against it, Nate. But in the end - I'm glad it was you the universe chose.
I love you and it's not all because of what happened to us. If there ever had been the chance, I think I could have loved you regardless.
Brad had left it unsigned. Nate ignores the fact that his hand is shaking slightly and sets the paper back down. He opens the box and tips the inner, smaller box into his hand. The hinge creaks as he pops it open. A plain platinum band is inside. He picks it up, rubs it between his fingertips, trying to decide.
His hands make the decision for him, his left thumb the only place the ring fits securely. It will be inconspicuous there, the meaning known only to him, and to Brad. Nate tucks the note into his wallet, and the ring box and legal papers into his bag. Then he locks the front door behind him, and goes to catch his morning plane.