In December, at Pendleton, hot, sweaty, salt-crusted, he keys himself into the officer's showers, tosses his bag onto the central benches and sits down heavily to unlace his boots. An hour spent in debrief and a long, frustrated walk across the grounds and he still can't shake the horror of the moment when his captain said, well, this'll be when we call in air support, so bent on repressing it he doesn't even jump when Brad says behind him,
"Don't mind me, sir," in his quiet even voice, and Nate twists to see him stretched out on a bench underneath an open window, braced carefully in the late afternoon sun, t-shirt and trackpants skimming across his limbs, Q magazine angled to get the best of the light. He has been watching. He is smiling, golden, more at ease than Nate has ever felt in these surroundings, like the place was built with him in mind.
"Perhaps I should mind you. If my point man can't even read the sign on the front door, this platoon's in dire straits."
"They were getting boring," Brad says after a long moment, glances up at the window. Nate doesn't rise to the dare: he doesn't know if it was open before Brad got here, and he doesn't want to know. Brad shrugs, swings his legs down and sits up, elbows on knees, squints with a bit more purpose in Nate's direction.
"Sorry I interrupted you," Nate says, grabs his boots and bag and stands, cracks his back, enjoys the free stretch of his toes on the tile. Brad shakes his head and slides his hand sideways, heavy watch turning the sun into Nate's eyes so Nate has to blink and look away. "And, uh, I'm being followed."
"Need help shaking them?"
"They won't be shook, I'm afraid," he says, and knows when Brad's smile widens, turns conspiratorial, that it's a mistake, that Brad's already weary of the company command, knows he's going take ambiguity as agreement. This is not the way to build team rapport, so he just nods goodbye like an idiot and shuffles off to a stall at the back, running white noise though his head as he strips and turns on the shower, and he may very well be alone at this point, and he has showered with an unfortunately large number of men in his time, but right now, he is surprised to find himself self-conscious, and it's mystifying until the reason says, voice low,
"Point man, eh?" He's shockingly close, just on the other side of the cubicle door. It makes Nate's skin crawl.
"If you're up for it."
"Hmm," says Brad, and lets the window bang shut behind him on the way out.
In January, when the announcement is made, he steps through the Battalion garage and storehouses with his damned clipboard, everyone else's smiles mirroring his own pulse-juddering excitement, feels his shoulders and back begin to bruise with enthusiastic slaps, tries to calm down the more bloodthirsty with tales of the tedium of the travel ahead, and throughout the walk he sees glimpses of his first team, Person up and down like a spastic puppy, Garza egging him on, Trombley smiling and cautious, and Brad doing his job with his usual steady efficiency, exaltation shining though the grin he directs at Nate whenever Nate manages to cross his path close enough to see.
In the mess hall their little group is expanded by Espera and his own Gunnery Sergeant so he joins them, in a huddle by the door, to hear the tail end of Gunny's answer to more of Person's depraved questioning.
"But say it's a really hot day, like, superfuckinghot, and they just had to take it off, I mean, underneath, what," Person gabbles, and Brad says,
"Evening, LT," easy and comfortable to Nate's nod and clipped "Gents." The circle widens and he gets a chorus of hellos, and he sits in that moment as long as he can because in a second he'll have to update them on departure times, a weak excuse but the only one he has, and leave for the officer's table, for more logistics, for more talk between old, set men where he doesn't have a voice, like it's Christmas and he's at the grown-ups table on sufferance, and his idiot cousin can only make conversation about Spaghetti-Os.
On a Friday in February, in Kuwait, in the space of twenty minutes, Pappy and Rudy kill five cardboard-box-and-MRE-wrapper terrorists with five sniper bullets, Trombley nearly gets run over and Person loses his shit, and Stinetorf almost has a nervous breakdown over the grit getting into his 50-cal. Nate runs some quick calculations under the righteous eye of his Corpsman and realises that, when it comes to lubricant, they might as well bend over, grab a handful of antiseptic wipes, and get it over with.
He goes looking for Griego, who turns out to be fiddling with his fledgling moustache and who dismisses him with self-pitying rationalisations and helplessness like the Great Wall, that you could batter yourself to death on without it even blinking. Nate turns away from him and watches the setting sun with sand in his eyes and mouth and skivvies, lets his gun hang and his sunburn burn some more, lets the heat beat the frustration out of him, because it's day twenty-seven, and there's plenty more to come.
On a Tuesday in March the most out-of-place looking motherfucker Nate's ever seen in his life appears in the shape of a slightly overweight and wide-eyed reporter who, if he hadn't been able to furnish numerous anecdotes about Afghanistan upon request (and too frequently sans request), Nate would never have believed had stepped outside of Los Angeles. He latches on to Nate for some reason, which could have been a disaster but he turns out to be decent enough, and Nate is happy to pass the time with stories about how awesome his men are. When Godfather agrees to let the reporter embed with Bravo Two Nate immediately thinks of the empty seat in Team One's Humvee.
"It's probably the safest place in the whole Battalion," he tells the reporter, who looks torn between terror and excitement when Nate explains just what his Marines will be doing. "I have the best platoon, and you'll be sitting directly behind Sgt. Colbert, one of the most experienced leaders in First Recon."
"Brad was born for this. If there's anyone I trust to keep you safe, it's him."
The reporter brightens up a little after that; Brad's a different story. When he comes up to show Nate the latest satellite photos on his precious laptop Nate oohs over them for a bit before summoning a straight face and letting him know the score. Brad stares at him for a long time.
"Sir," he says, finally, "I had faith in you. I trusted you, and you do this to me. Jesus, when Ray hears this his brain is going to take a vacation all over my nice clean vehicle. Do you know what that's going to do to my camouflage palette?"
On Friday, Brad corners him and delivers one of his epic, mannered rants. This one finishes: "and I just know that in six months I will be browsing my local newsagent only to be confronted, on the cover of Rolling Stone, with the freakshow mating of Ray Person's genetically recursive, whiskey tango face and Rudy Fucking Reyes's gold-hotpants-wearing, Ricky-Martin-Fanclub-membership-holding espresso maker, and I'm telling you, Nate, this image is not conducive to my combat readiness."
"Leave it to me," Nate says, and Brad twitches his mouth in thanks and strides stiffly away, leaving Nate to head back to his tent to start digging around for the bullshit he's going to have to shovel into the write-up, which is nothing compared to the fact that in the end he has to say it out loud to a Battalion Commander more interested in passing commendations up the wire than in reading between the lines, in front of a CO who's too busy watching spots dance in front of his eyes to hear the lines in the first place.
When he bitches to Gunny later Gunny's mouth slides into that epitome of ironic resignation and he just tells Nate to look on the bright side: at least none of his men got shitcanned over it.
On Thursday, he trades quips with Brad after leaving the briefing tent and it calms to some extent the sheer looming crazy of the Grooming Standard, twenty klicks south of the Iraqi border, fifteen hours after the war has started, of his CO taping his own vehicle's windows shut, of the bullshit supply back-and-forth, of the Danger Will Robinson sirens blaring in the air around his fellow platoon leader, of the complete lack of fucking armour or support crossing the LOD. They banter like he's crossing the lawns to get to a lecture or something; it takes him for a second to some illusory headspace, safe in its irony, untouchable until Brad and the others traipse off, hooting and hollering, to their skeletal, scratched-together vehicles: he watches and remembers that he has no idea what's in store for his men across that border, that no-one is watching their asses except each other, that they will burn themselves to a crisp if he lets them get used poorly, if he lets them do that to themselves, and he knows with a sudden stone-cold certainty that he'll never love anyone as fiercely as he does the twenty-one retards in his sights right now.
On Saturday he meets hundreds of men with broken feet and tired faces, men with families, men that America has made promises to, men that America has obligations towards, and he tells his team leaders to turn them around and send them back into the guns. They look at him, sickened, as they should; walking away, he feels the full weight of the whole crawling grossness of it until Brad starts calling orders, and then he finds he can stand a little bit straighter.
On Monday he realises that sometime in the next twenty-four hours he is going to cross the Euphrates, lead a battalion of smoke-spewing Humvees loaded to the gills with filthy-mouthed, high, eager-to-kill Americans, weird and wonderful pornography, ancient, freeze-dried imitation food and several tons of guns, ammunition and artillery into the Cradle of Civilisation, and he almost floats away on the incongruity of it all except he's suspended between Stafford and Christeson chanting cheesy Nelly lyrics behind him and Journey drifting in on the breeze from up ahead, Brad on his point and Lovell at his six, Gunny steady beside him, so instead he just smiles at the thought of the transcendental shitfit his seventeen-year-old self, nose buried in Gilgamesh, would throw if he could see him now.
On Tuesday night Nate stands next to the bullet holes in the side panels of his truck, breathes in the desert and feels half of the muscles in his body unclench at once; can finally, Al Gharraf sitting smoking behind him, believe that they all made it out alive. When Person walks by Nate calls his name, tries to find the words for, my men still here in large part thanks to you, that don't sound quite so emasculating out loud.
"Good driving today," is what he goes with, and Ray's eyes drag to him with the lagged focus of a Ripped Fuel comedown.
"I appreciate that, Lieutenant, but in retrospect, I think my greatest strategic move was not the driving so much as the stopping. Element of surprise, you know, the hajis wouldn't expect us to stop, with our gunner down, in the kind of ambush position I have had filthy dirty wet dreams about. Of course, by this logic, going through the middle of the city RCT-1 shit its frilly pink panties over was a stroke of fucking genius, so it's a wonder that they didn't just lay down their guns the second--"
Nate's truck's radio buzzes with his commander's voice, and he holds up an apologetic hand, leans in and grabs the hook.
"This is Hitman Two, go ahead Hitman."
I, uh, need you to send a couple of men out on an S&R, how copy?
Nate shoots a look at Gunny, who shrugs.
"Copy that Hitman, who is the objective?"
That would be Lieutenant Peters.
"Fucking H&S," Gunny says, disgustedly, and in his periphery Nate can see Ray wanking the air.
"Interrogative, when was he last seen and in what sector?"
"On it Hitman, Hitman Two out." Nate resists the urge to close his eyes in defeat, unsure if he could open them again afterwards. He looks at Ray, who shakes his head for two, three beats, four, until he throws up his hands and sighs.
"He's sleeping, you know," Ray says, all quiet reproach, as he turns to go.
On Wednesday, in the morning, the sun is all there is, bright and thin and hot, and Nate is obviously not counted amongst those few to whom it shows mercy, because when he steps by Team One's vehicle Brad, perched atop it, is haloed in it, eyes in shadow, every hair limned to insubstantiality.
The sun shows Brad mercy, and in it this morning he is charming through his frustration and weariness, asking for the lube he needs to work his heavy gun with deprecation and inventive wit. He has the good grace to not blame Nate for the lack of LSA, and so when Nate hears himself fall back on the same hoo-rah Marines-make-do platitude Griego spouts constantly his stomach rolls like he's seasick and he has to turn away. As he leaves he feels Brad's eyes follow him and wonders if they're forgiving or fed up.
On his way to his company briefing he stops by RCT-1, searches out their Operations Chief, Annello, and swaps three packs of tissues and two packs of wipes for a tin of stinking amber swill; an unfair trade, as it turns out, but what Annello doesn't know won't hurt him.
On Thursday night, sunk into his grave, there are a lot of things he doesn't think about: the kid, unconscious, dying, tear tracks drying on his face, the elegant, desperate, searching hands of his mother; Brad, pulling the weight of that guilt down onto himself; Trombley's unconcerned eyes. And he doesn't think about Dave's Vietnam fever, or Godfather's Mattis fetish; he doesn't think about his own commander trying to rain bombs on their heads; he doesn't think about the possibility of being relieved. He doesn't think about his men, thirty klicks behind enemy lines, less a sister company, with 4000 Republican Guard God knows where. He doesn't think about the heat being leached out of his skin by clammy sweat that has no way to dry and nowhere to go; he doesn't think about the constant scratch and prickle of his MOPP suit; he doesn't think of the grit in his eyes or sting of antiseptic on his feet or the roughness of the dirt and stone under him or the ache in his hand from gripping his rifle or the loose molar on his bottom jaw or the sickly, grotty smell of himself or the bone-aching, lead-footed weariness.
Instead, he thinks about Brad leaning over him yesterday afternoon, hunched under fire and outraged on Nate's behalf, blue eyes narrowed and dark with command's latest idiocy; he thinks about the easy way he'd said he trusted Nate, confident, unhesitating; thinks about Brad, huge and intense and undeniable, and finally falls asleep.
On Friday, surrounded by absurd, abandoned luxury, an empty swimming pool, hollowed out buildings, lush green pepper trees, the inane chatter of birds and Marines, the ghost of a gutshot boy, Wright hitches himself up onto the back of the truck where Nate is propped, searching for a way to write up the danger close incident without calling his CO an outright ignoramus, and they go over the assault on the airfield, the position of the other divisions, Trombley, and it's the same as usual except near the end Wright asks Nate this bizarre question about how Brad's doing, as though Nate would somehow know.
"Nobody wants to see civilian casualties," Nate says, as diplomatically as he can. "But this is war. We all know it. Sgt. Colbert will be fine."
Wright tips forward, almost overbalancing, to peer around Nate to where Brad is hunkered under his vehicle with a chisel and a hammer, Rudy on his hands and knees peering under the side.
"Yeah, he looks dandy," Wright says, eyebrows disappearing into his hairline. Nate tries not to smile.
"Sgt. Colbert's one of the most respected people in the recon community. He's a professional in a way that many of the men aren't. He's been through worse than this. He'll be fine."
"C'mon, Nate, you're not wearing your LT hat now," Wright says, pointing to the kevlar perched on Nate's knee. "I need a, you know, a friend perspective."
"I'm not sure I follow you."
"Well, you guys are friends, right? As far as I can tell, you're the only person he seeks out. Everyone else goes to him."
This is news to Nate. He twists back around; Brad is alone now, still chipping away in that cramped space, long arms folded up awkwardly, grime-encrusted, breathing in that crud, as the morning wears on and the sun gets down to business: over an hour now, Nate realises, checking his watch. He asks Wright for a raincheck, hops down and on the way to searching out Gunny for their briefing he raps on the hood of Team One's Humvee and calls,
"I'm pulling you outta there by your ankles when I get back."
If Brad replies he doesn't hear it, but at night he comes back to life and Nate is surprised by the depth of his own relief, not just at having the Iceman back to watch over them, but also how, amidst all the tiredness and frustration, the power plays and self-aggrandisement, it just feels good to share a smile with someone again.
On Sunday he sits down to clean his M4 and finds himself watching Brad roll up his cammo nets and pack his vehicle, lecturing Trombley about something or other, trading banter with Ray, sly smile revealing white teeth, tattoo a splash of colour on his back, muscles gliding smooth under tanned skin, trousers hanging low, broad hands to match broad shoulders, bulky and masculine and perfect. As he watches, he wants, consciously, definably, recognisably this time, a pull in his chest, an itch on his palms like a shamaal on the horizon.
Later, he listens to his company commander give a troop-rallying speech that wouldn't be out of place in a Police Academy movie, and he wonders how much space there is inside of him, that he can push all of this down, how much emptiness he has to contain whatever the fuck he feels for Brad, whatever the fuck he feels about the command, the strategic plan, what he's seen; wonders how much there'll even be left when all this is over.
On Tuesday night, huddled together around a map in a parody of tactical recon briefings, his team leaders raise perfectly legitimate concerns about the Muwaffaqiyah approach, and he dredges up what he thinks may be the last of his reserves of moto Marine bullshit to pull them over the hump. He barely succeeds, half scuttled, half supported by Brad's shadowed gaze, but the hollow ring of his words makes him realise as he leaves them that he's doing what he swore at the start he'd never do, taking his men into unjustifiable contact, trusting to their luck and skill to get them out alive, but he's got orders and there's no refusing them, no mitigating them: this is what he signed up for; this is what being an officer is; this is what war looks like.
On Wednesday, on the road out of Muwaffaqiyah, they stop for a moment to let air take out a mortar team and Nate's almost unsurprised to have Brad appear out of nowhere, interrupting his makeshift conference with Gunny with his patented firm, declarative sir that speaks of a confidence in being heard, and Nate is struck for a moment by how that might look to the others, if they think it's strange that Brad is always guaranteed an audience with him.
"Can I help you, Sgt. Colbert?' he asks, and Brad's face flickers, unreadable.
"Sir, what's this I hear about you refusing to let us speak for you with respect to you trying to unfuck our beloved Company Commander, and the aspersions cast by our eminently capable and charming Company Operations Chief?"
He's looking for a fight, Nate realises with a start, face strained with the memory of another bloodied civilian, another Iraqi to sweep under the label of collateral damage, and fuck, this is a conversation they really shouldn't be having, out in the open, in daylight, 300 metres down from H&S. He needs to nip this shit in the bud.
"This is old news Brad, and I'm not discussing this any further," he says, making sure his officer voice is firmly in place. "You need to return to your vehicle, we're Oscar Mike any moment now."
Brad frowns and darts a glance at Gunny for support; finding none, he turns back to Nate, leaning forward and lowering his voice.
"With all due respect, sir, you have no idea what you mean to this platoon, and you can't expect us to just stand by and let this happen."
"That is exactly what I expect you to do, Sergeant." Nate wills him to leave it be, and when Brad straightens up for a moment he thinks he might have won, but Brad just says,
"Well frankly, sir, that's bullshit," like a slap, and Nate hisses in a breath and rocks forward a step, into Brad's space, leans up until they're almost nose to nose, and he can see the second when Brad stops looking at the pictures inside his head and snaps to, all that focus pinpointed on Nate for real, closer than they've ever been, and neither of them blink when Gunny says a wary "Sergeant," behind them.
"Brad," Nate says, slow, deliberate, like he's speaking to a child, "if I hear even the slightest hint that you've not put this behind you in the next five mikes, your team will be driving point behind the fucking POGs and reservists for the rest of the fucking war, and I will see to it personally that any missions that might fall your way will consist entirely of shuttling generals from the mess tent to the fucking latrines. Let. It. Go."
"Copy that, sir," Brad says, after an age, still unblinking, and Nate thought he'd met the Iceman before, but that was nothing compared to the cold fury clamped down behind his eyes now, the tight thin line of his mouth, the rigid set of his shoulders as he walks away back to his vehicle. Nate can only bear to watch for a second; he turns back to the map spread out on the hood next to him, unseeing, mind blank.
Three klicks down the road Gunny says, resignedly, "What the fuck is Person up to now?" and Nate looks away from his sector to see his lead vehicle moving erratically, speeding up for a couple of metres, slowing suddenly to an almost halt, weaving sharp S shapes into the gravel.
"Get him to cut it out if he doesn't stop soon," he tells Gunny, and turns back to scanning the roadside. He hopes that's the last of it, patience stretched thin at the end of this endless fucking tragedy of a day, but a few hundred metres later the radio crackles and spits out Ray's nasal voice.
Interrogative, all Hitman Two victors, does anyone have any matching bra and panty sets for my pissy-fit-throwing team leader Iceprincess over here? Pink preferred but Disney--
The radio goes dead after that. Nate manages to keep a straight face until he glances across the cabin to see Gunny, possibly the sanest person Nate's ever met, grinning like a loon; a distinct screwby comes floating in from the back of the truck.
"Those two are going to be the death of us," Gunny says, shaking his head, and Nate feels something uncoil in his chest, grins out at the high green grass of Iraq, sun swimming orange on the horizon, fresh air breezing in to cool the sweat on his face, and forgets himself enough to be content for a moment.
On Thursday, twelve hours later, Brad finds him on the ridge of a steep berm waiting for the sun to rise, trying to work up enough saliva to swallow his last bite of dessicated poundcake, listening to the destruction of Al Kut as Marines snore like trucks and abuse each other cheerfully. Brad's just come off watch; his tread is slow and heavy and he hesitates a few steps away from where Nate is sitting.
"Anything to report, Sergeant?" Nate asks, when it becomes awkward.
"You heard about the EPW? Then business as usual," Brad says, and sighs and sort of rushes on, "LT, I need to apologise for my behaviour before. I was way out of line."
Technically true, but Nate can't see the point in making a fuss of it so he just shrugs and motions to the sand next to him. After a moment Brad sits down, and they watch the slow-motion bustle of the camp at night, the glow of Al Kut afire on the horizon, quiet and companionable like they've never really had before, and for a second Nate can almost fool himself into thinking he doesn't want even more than this, that he can't feel with precision every inch of air between them, that he can't imagine with hallucinogenic clarity the wave of Brad's ribs under his hand, the points of his cheekbones under Nate's thumbs.
He darts a glance at Brad and it turns out Brad is watching him, again, that same steady gaze; it makes his heart thump and he has to swallow hard past the sudden lump in his throat.
"The smoke grenade worked on that first vehicle, the sedan. It was a good idea. You can't hold yourself responsible for what happened."
"You think my little tantrum was about Muwaffiqiyah?"
"No. Yes. Fuck, I don't know." Brad finally turns away, half shrugs, says to the air in front of them, "it's everything. It's just, this entire operation, all these avoidable fuckups, dead civilians, fucking little kids, our own people shooting at us, COs with their fucking medal hard-ons--" He catches himself before he gets too loud, takes a couple of deep breaths. "At least, in all of this unceasing and unchanging retardation, we've at least got you."
He cocks his head and fixes Nate with a look that steals Nate's breath, like he knows, easy as that, Brad knows that Nate wants to lay a hand and more on him, that Nate can't sleep anymore without thinking of Brad first, that Brad's quick smile and constant presence have somehow become the centerpiece of this war for him. Sitting here in the sand Brad is very close, and his eyes glitter as they flick down when Nate licks his lips, mouth dry with possibility.
"Sir," Brad says, low and dark, leaning in, bracing himself with a hand by Nate's knee, almost touching, "I think you should follow me."
"Jesus Christ, Brad," Nate breathes, aghast, heart racing, dizzy at the thought of it. "Jesus Christ, you know I can't do that."
Brad's mouth twists at that, shades of bitterness, but he turns his face away before Nate can really see what it shows, nods sharply to himself, moves like he's going to get up.
"Stay," Nate blurts, only just managing to stop himself from reaching out, draws his legs up instead and hooks his hands around his knees. Brad relaxes a little; settles more as the seconds tick by, stretches his legs out and leans back on his elbows
"You could, you know," he says after a few minutes, and God knows Nate wishes it were true. He shakes his head.
"I'd be no better than Bravo Three if I did."
"That's fucking retarded," Brad says, "all due respect," and gives him a long sly smile, and they sit there a bit longer, watching the sun rise, and if it's not the kind of peace Nate would prefer to find with Brad, it will do.
On the wavering border of Thursday and Friday Nate rests himself for a moment in his truck, eyes straining through the darkness for Gunny who is supposed to meet him here and instead when he blinks it's Brad at the open door, eyes in shadow, a heavy hand on Nate's shoulder, another on Nate's cheek, blazing heat through the tired fog Nate lives in these days when he's not being shot at, and Griego at the driver's side window is saying something about a tank but Nate can't concentrate on it with Brad breathing so close, Brad's thumb hovering at the corner of his mouth like a promise, and just as he manages to work up some words to give Griego the brush-off, Gunny slams a clipboard down on the hood and mutters something mutinous about Charlie Company, and they both vanish and all Nate can remember is the ghost of a palm on his cheek.
On Friday he watches Stafford and Christeson, carefully managing to miss him standing ten feet away, load three dusty little sisters and two suitcases into the back of his truck, and somehow Nate is supposed to tell his men that these people walking to nowhere with their houses on their backs are not the USMC's concern; that the old woman without shoes ought to be on her feet, not in Poke's own seat; that the baby Baptista is cooing at will probably die.
"So this is what an invasion looks like," Brad says, appearing at his side, the corners of his mouth turned down, bags under his eyes like they're carved into stone. More than any of them, more even than Doc, Brad is drained and nourished by this war, is the sign of its workings, pared down by its random victories and betrayals like the depths of his competence and feeling are unplumbable, and Nate knows he will never be a good enough officer to figure out why it's so important that Brad hurts like this.
On Monday Brad strips to his waist, sticks his arms out, and banks around an overgrown field like the tallest, deadliest dork the world has ever seen. Nate is supposed to be on the hook to Hitman but when he looks up and sees Brad jog past, face turned up to the sun, long arms flapping, he can't help but smile, can't help dropping the handset to his chest, the warmth that hums through him. It turns out that Nate is completely and totally fucked when it comes to Brad Colbert, because this is possibly the silliest thing he's seen in the last three months, and yet here he is, grinning like an idiot, filing the image away; he finds can't even begrudge Brad his moment of bliss, stepping outside his circumstance like a phoenix, because as usual Brad's regifted it and passed it on: Nate doesn't know about everyone else but watching him, Nate kind of feels like he's free, too.
On Friday he tours the cigarette factory with increasing satisfaction, the memo of occupation folded crisply in his breast pocket, making notes on likely rooms and vantage points, a wide, dead-end corridor perfect for a make-shift sickbay, a cool dark room with shelving the right size for their jerrycans of water, a paved area well-clear of the walls where he could probably let the men jury-rig some weights equipment, and as he walks through the large open warehouse where motor pool are cursing their way through repairing his Humvees and emerges into the sun where his men are relaxed and joking and sleeping he sends up a prayer of thanks that finally, fucking finally, they've got the space and time and ability to actually help these people instead of accidentally on purpose blowing them up.
On Wednesday, perched above a city that they've helped smother in chaos and blood, his captain orders him into another Muwaffaqiyah and it's the last straw; he stares at the firefight he is supposed to lead his men through and it turns out he does have a choice after all.
On Thursday, returning to base, Brad has it clamped down pretty well but everyone can tell he is blazingly furious, about last night or the unexploded ordinance or the tale of the shot-up kids on the tank Nate doesn't know, but everyone steers clear of him anyway. Nate plans to too but it's made pretty difficult when Brad ambushes him on the way back from Battalion, comes out of nowhere and pushes him backwards into some kind of storeroom, dusty light filtering in through the vent above the door.
"Jesus Christ," Brad hisses, tries to pace but there's no room, ends up turning in circles, running his hands through his hair, crumpled paper and hollow tins rattling at his feet, "this is not what I am built for. This is not what I am supposed to be doing. I want to level this place. I want to take them all out. Everything."
"Hey," Nate says, soft, but Brad doesn't quieten; he comes at Nate again, and Nate has nowhere to go, the shelves behind him cutting painful lines across his back when Brad leans right in and kisses him, hard, clamps a hand on Nate's neck, opens Nate's mouth up with his teeth and his tongue and maybe this supposed to be another fight, maybe he is supposed to push Brad away but when he lifts his hand it winds up buried in Brad's hair, the other fisted in Brad's shirt, his heart pumping like he's in combat, staggering to be handled like this, to be pressed down and taken, on and on, ice the most absurd metaphor for Brad imaginable, and surely Brad can feel him getting hard against his thigh because Christ, Nate can certainly feel Brad, and this really needs to be brought under control before they do something monumentally stupid like fuck in an unlocked storage closet in the middle of three hundred Marines in the middle of Baghdad. He wills to himself all of the control he's learnt over the last five years, slows the kiss down, puts an aching bit of air between them, and Brad of course reads his mind, drops his hand to Nate's waist, touches his forehead to Nate's, sighs heavily.
"They're fucking it up, Nate," he whispers, breath puffing against Nate's lips, and here in the dim light it's safe to say,
"I know," and not really let go of Brad's shirt; neither of them really even move at all for the few minutes until they're decent to go out.
On Saturday his platoon rolls out of Baghdad leaving it no better than when they found it. Maybe worse. Winning a war, it turns out, feels a lot like failure.
After they've set up camp he trades notes with Wright, pretends to himself and Wright and God that he can talk about it objectively, distracts himself with the sight of half of Bravo Two and Three running endurance sprints out on the grass, Stafford calling out time. They're topless, for the most part, shining with exertion, jostling each other out of the way at the turn points, dropping off one by one to stand around and point and laugh.
Nate's wondered if maybe he's just going through a gay phase or something, but while they're pleasing to look at none of them do to him what Brad does, even asleep, propped upright as he is now in his Humvee, one long leg dangling outside almost to the ground.
"Nate," Wright says behind him, friendly and conversational, "you once told me that you think Don't Ask Don't Tell is a ridiculous--"
Nate is startled into laughter, turns back around to see if Wright's serious. He's got a goofy smile on his face like he wants to be in on the joke, but his eyes are sharp. Nate shakes his head.
"Look at these guys," he says, sweeps his hand around the camp. "You know what they dealt with. They had the bad guys and us at command doing our level best to fuck them up, but here they are. They brought each other through it. Fuck Don't Ask Don't Tell; I love them. And they'd all say the exact same thing."
"And Sgt. Colbert?"
Nate looks back over at Team One's vehicle. Brad's head has tipped back, his mouth gaping open, most likely snoring his face off.
"Colbert's special," he says, and Wright follows his his gaze, laughs hard enough that he drops his pen.
On Wednesday he leaves his men to it, to take whatever victories they can find in their journey together, hopes they don't fuck themselves up too badly on the gin of doubtful origin. He takes his leave of Gunny, too, paces the grey corridors of an Iraqi Pendleton in the fading light and eventually his feet take him to an obscure, abandoned office, upstairs on the north side, not too badly looted, wood panelling mostly intact, some mid-level officer's home away from home. The window, empty of glass, faces the central assembly area: when Nate looks out he sees the Humvees that carried his men across Iraq parked herringbone along the inner wall, impossibly tiny and dead at this distance.
The door opens behind him. He takes a moment before turning around; Brad is wedging a chair under the doorhandle and at the absurd sight of it Nate can't lie to himself: this is what he was hoping would happen.
"You found me."
"If that was you trying to be elusive, you are in the wrong line of work." Brad takes in the room, going left to the desk, running his fingers along the edge, moving forward to study a bookcase. He looks out the window next to it for a long time.
"It's over," he says, and he doesn't even sound disappointed like at the POG camp; he sounds hollow, and it's fucking heartbreaking.
"Just come here," Nate says, opens his palms out at his sides, and Brad crosses the distance in the same unhurried steps, holds Nate's eye as he hooks a hand under Nate's rifle strap and lifts it over his head, leans the stock against the wall. The lack of weight and press against his shoulder is startling and damning and Nate starts to freak out, tries to think of something more insane that he could be doing right now and comes up short; then Brad leans his own gun against the wall and stands right there in front of him, all dusty tan and careful eyes, intent and gorgeous and kinda sad, and Nate just lets that shit go, steps into the warmth of him, the smell of him that his worn USMC shirt can't contain, because what the fuck, maybe right now he shouldn't be pushing this down, out, away: this is a gift. This has been his saving fucking grace.
They kiss and it's not punishing this time but it still lights him up, like Brad can burn away all the dross and idiocy of the last month just with this closeness, deft fingers shucking Nate out of his jacket, the sour echo of peanut butter and dip new on Nate's tongue, grunting when when Nate pulls him in and their hips bump, cocks rub through their trousers. Nate slides his hands under Brad's shirt, up his back, the knobs of his spine, traces his ribs around but of course there's no breast to cup, just broad firm muscle, a nipple to flick as he slips a hand down to pull his ass in and Brad groans again, clutches his bicep, tries to push him back against the wall but Nate uses the momentum to twist them around and Brad hits it instead. He grins, bites Nate's lip hard.
Getting naked would be asking for trouble but Nate wants it like he's never wanted anything, wants to see the twilight play out along the long lines of Brad's body, wants to see where the shadows are so he can lick them away, wants to get to his knees for Brad, feel his thighs tremble when he comes. He settles for sticking his hand down Brad's skivvies.
"Hoo fucking rah," Brad gasps, eyes flying wide open, fluttering closed, head tilting back so Nate can mouth at his chin, neck, collarbone, so much of him but not enough: Nate can already tell that he will never get enough of Brad, never get enough of Brad touching him back, jerking him off with the same steady focus he applies to everything, drawing it out until Nate feels like he's going to implode, holding him up when his knees buckle afterwards.
Later, in the clear, bright quarter-moon light, they slouch side-by-side on the kind of chairs designed for unwelcome visitors, legs propped up on the windowsill. Nate can still smell them, in the air, on himself where the four tissues he scrounged from the bottom of a pocket didn't get too far. He is sleepy and nearly comfortable; they murmur to each other when they have something to say and in the silences Nate's mind mostly stays away from how much of himself is wrapped up in this, how colossally unprepared he is for the the way this has to end.
On a Sunday in May, two days before they ship out, amidst the chaos of preparation, they find another out-of-the-way spot, a claustrophobic storeroom, underground, this one with the advantage of a light and a sturdy hook in the wall next to the door handle that Nate can twist a rope around for a make-shift lock.
They have gotten to this point without really speaking, going off gestures and the occasional head shake, and once they're inside Nate is at a loss, reluctant to start anything, knowing they don't have much time. Brad is no help, arms crossed, expressionless, watching. The light is yellow and ugly; now that Brad is finally starting to get some sleep the bags under his eyes are disappearing but here they're thrown into gaunt relief. It doesn't matter. He's still the most compelling thing Nate has ever seen outside of his prom date in her bedroom, standing nervously in her awkward lingerie.
"I'd never done this before, you know," Nate says, trying to keep it light, taking off his own gun and jacket this time, finding a spot for them on a box nearby. "With a guy, I mean. Or, for that matter, a Marine."
"Nate, stop talking." Brad's already in his shirt, doesn't have a jacket to take off, but he puts his gun next to Nate's. His hands hover by his belt.
"Undo it," Nate says, undoing his own, and Brad cocks an eyebrow and grins at him.
"Yes, sir," he says, and Nate grins back, leans forward and grabs the loose end of his belt, reels him in and when they're close Brad reaches up, brushes his knuckles across Nate's cheek in an unexpected move. Nate's heart lurches; he falters, and Brad has to see it, but he just says, conversationally,
"Sex, like war, brings out the truth of a man," as he lays a hand on Nate's dick for the second and last time. "You, it would seem, are a behind-closed-doors, mother-fetch-the-chains-please pervert. Ray owes me twenty bucks."
Nate tries to drum up some outrage but it's all swallowed by a kiss, deep and careful, long; he's strung out between Brad at his mouth and Brad's hand working in his skivvies, all heavy breathing and wet sounds like he's sixteen and in his parent's basement. When he reaches out Brad is already halfway hard, and it's like Nate's hand has memorised the shape and sexual preferences of Brad's cock or something because it already feels fucking natural to be doing this, to be clutching a broad shoulder that moves with rhythmic, teasing jerks, kisses getting sloppy as Nate draws them closer together until he can feel Brad moving against him, opens up to take them both into his hand, Brad's dick slipping electric against his, Brad's strong hand closing tight around them, increasing the pace, too much, almost, too fast for Nate to take it in, to memorise, to be anything except washed away by the desperate heat and hitch of it all.
Brad cranes his head back a couple of inches, mouth bruised and slack and wet, pupils blown under half-lidded eyes. He drags his thumb heavily over Nate's lips and Nate nips it, sucks it in, curls his tongue around it, heavy and drugged, feels his cheeks hollow.
"Oh, fuck. Jesus, Nate." Brad says it like it hurts him, thrusts his hips raggedly a couple of times and comes, wet warmth across Nate's hand, the belly of his shirt. He sags briefly against Nate, mouth moving soft at the junction of his neck and shoulder, before recovering, bats Nate's hand away from where their cocks brush and takes over, lifts his head a few inches to whisper, hoarse, into Nate's ear, oh you fucking kill me you know, look at you, no-one else is ever going to know you like I know you, bites his earlobe, licks along Nate's jaw and tonguefucks him until he comes, hard, senses blown, the sight and sound, smell and taste and feel of Brad all over him.
It takes him a long time to come back down to earth and when he does it's just as awkward as at the start. Nate thought to bring a few more tissues this time but nothing will save his shirt so he takes it off, takes Brad's hand and wipes his wrist clean, lets go before it gets pathetic, wipes himself down and stuffs the shirt into an empty pocket at his calf. They separate cautiously, avoiding eye contact, buckling themselves up, putting themselves back together until finally they're left standing there again.
"I'm thinking of leaving the Corps," Nate says, because it's true, although he doesn't know what he wants it to mean, how he wants Brad to hear it. It doesn't matter anyway. Brad just makes a non-committal noise and unwinds the rope locking them in, listens hard for a minute before opening the door.
"You go ahead," Nate says, and Brad hesitates for a fraction of a second before he slips out. He doesn't look back.
Nate sits down on the box that had held their guns, rests his elbows on his knees, jacket rough and annoying stretched across against his bare back, fingers knotting together, looks at the ground and thinks of nothing at all.
One starless night in August Nate steps out onto Gunny's porch to find Brad alone, leaning against the rails, still and silent. Nate joins him without comment, staring out into the void of Gunny's yard, the noise of his drunken platoon inside washing out and over them. Brad's had a few; his hands dangle relaxed over the rails, bottle of beer held lightly by its mouth, the long, warm line of him at Nate's side, and it's weird, familiar to be sharing time like this but the situation is too fantastical. They're drinking beer. They're on a porch. Nate's just spent the last two hours saying goodbye to his men and trying not to cry.
"I'm not sorry it happened," Brad says, out of nowhere. "It was what it was," which is pretty cryptic because even now Nate has no real idea what it was. He thinks about what Brad said the second time, before they left, wonders how much of it was just sex talk, knows he wants to believe it anyway, that they had something that transcended context, but it's not like he ever thought they were going to be partners or lovers or fuckbuddies, walk along the beach holding hands or something, sighing and gazing into each other's eyes. Nate might never see him again after tonight. He doesn't know what to say: Brad feels about as accessible as Iraq but when he lifts his head and looks at Nate it's still there; it still does his head in. Times like this he thinks he might be sorry because it kind of fucking hurts, all wrapped up in goodbyes and homecomings and other bits of change.
"I guess that's it, then." Brad straightens suddenly and gives him a feral pseudo-smile, snaps his arm and casts his bottle deep into the dark. They hear it thud on the grass, break on something else, and Brad blinks a couple of times, looks down at his empty hand like he can't quite believe his ears. Nate lets out a low whistle.
"I hope your affairs are in order."
"I think it went over the fence," Brad says, doubtfully.
"Your head'll be going over the fence come tomorrow morning."
"Oh, Christ," Brad sighs. "Fucking Gunny and his anal topiary bullshit. One day I'm going to take a chainsaw to those fucking rabbits." He steps down into the yard, pulls a truly epic keyring out of his pocket, and amongst the thousand-and-one keys and mysterious gadgets is a tiny torch that nearly blinds Nate when Brad turns and shines it back on him, invitingly.
It doesn't take much thought. He hops down into the dark, and when in their search they hit a particularly dark corner Brad snaps off his penlight and Nate presses him into what he guesses is a tree and kisses him goodbye, stale taste of beer in his mouth, Brad's hand curling around his wrist hard enough to leave bruises.
In December, on page 293 of Wright's manuscript, he reads:
The experience has been so intense that even though they're all journeying home together, many of the Marines who have formed close friendships are saddened at the prospect of leaving Iraq. Fick and Colbert, especially, seem to have trouble with the idea, and spend a lot of their downtime together huddled over Colbert's laptop or simply talking. While it is unusual for friendships to form over the boundaries of rank, Fick has relied on Colbert's expertise throughout the invasion and on the rare occasions there is tension between the two, the whole platoon seems to feel it.
In my final interview with Fick he is still feeling the effects of his disappointment in Baghdad, but he finally perks up when the subject changes to Colbert, praising yet again his leadership of his team, and by extension, his position at the tip of the invasion into Iraq: "Colbert's special. This would have been extremely difficult without him."
Colbert is, not unsurprisingly, hardly effusive about his feelings, but he does mention that they were lucky to have Fick: "He's one of the good ones," he says, giving the impression that good ones have been few and far between.
"Are you kidding?" says Ray Person. "Brad and the LT have been total boyfriends this whole invasion. After this they're going to set up a love shack in San Francisco, open up an organic free trade coffee shop and adopt African babies."
"Ray, you need shut yourself the fuck up or I will do it for you," Colbert says, and promptly disappears, seemingly not in the mood for Person's teasing today.
Person's mouth falls open, eyes wide.
"The fuck did I say?"
He reads it again, several times over before he has to put it down and get some air. Before he goes to bed that night he writes next to it, It's up to you of course but I would appreciate it if you left this passage out, or edited it extensively. I guess you know why.
Exactly a week after he sends the manuscript back to Wright he gets a reply, the usual chaotic spread of news and jokes and three hundred words on why Nate is wrong about his journalistic mood on page 56. His postscript reads:
Spoke to Tony the other day, he says he hears from him pretty regularly, says he's doing well. He'll be back in LA soon for a short time. Want me to pass on anything?
Nate stares at it, wishes he knew what to do with the information, here on the other side of the country. He lingers over an empty email for an embarrassingly long time before finding something he can live with.
Tell him the war wouldn't have been the same without him. Tell him to keep his head on. Tell him I said hi.