Brad's team was waiting in the ready room off the garage when Nate came in to give them the final go order. The reporter, Evan Wright, was with them.
Nate looked him up and down. He was wearing a suit like the rest of them, shirt open at the collar to show a temporary replica of the Antonin family's tattoo, but Wright's suit was obviously off-the-rack and slightly crumpled. Brad's team were all immaculately tailored and pressed, perfectly up to the standard of the crime family laborers they were impersonating tonight. Wright's gloves clashed slightly with the suit, too, not quite the same shade of black. It took a sharp eye--and a generous budget--to perfectly match leather and fabric. Nate's men had division staffers to attend to those tiny crucial details, but Wright had clearly dressed himself. He looked, in fact, like everyone's stereotype of an underpaid civil servant, which would be an irony no one appreciated if he blew the team's cover.
Well, there was nothing to do about it now. Nate wasn't going to ask Ray to fix Wright's clothes and start the night already suffering from blowback, and remarking on it would only make Wright more nervous. He was the only non-worker in the room, and he already looked like he was teetering between excitement and the compelling urge to vomit. It would be dark, anyway, and this particular mission was sufficiently low-risk that it shouldn't make a difference.
Still, Nate threw a glance toward Brad, letting his eyebrows twitch up. Brad glanced toward Wright, and his mouth quirked in acknowledgement of everything Nate had spotted. He gave a tiny shrug, acquiescing to the possibility of a complication. This was why Nate had handed Wright over to Brad's team anyway; Brad was more than capable of coping with whatever difficulties the reporter caused. Nate nodded, accepting Brad's judgment, and turned back to address Wright with a smile.
"You ready for this?"
Wright nodded, expression tilting back toward eagerness.
"It should be a simple job," Nate said, not bothering to actually rehash the briefing. "Walt and Ray have all the heavy lifting here. Nobody should even have to get out of the car. Brad's in charge, he'll keep everything under control, and James is along just as a precaution."
Wright's gaze skittered over toward Trombley, flicking nervously down toward his gloved hands. In all likelihood he'd never been this close to a death worker without a heavy sheet of prison glass in between.
Trombley, being Trombley, bared his teeth in a grin and raised his hands, wiggling his fingers. "Don't worry, Reporter. If anything goes wrong I'll kill 'em real good."
"Nobody's killing anyone tonight, Trombley," Brad put in, with the slightly exasperated patience of many repetitions. "If we kill the target we lose our in with the Zacharov organization and we have to start this investigation all fucking over."
Wright shot Brad a look nearly as unnerved as the look he'd given Trombley.
"This is a very low-risk operation," Nate soothed, even as he shot another glance at Brad, twitching his fingers down at his sides. Brad flashed him a thumb in answer: yes, he'd be ready to work Wright if necessary to keep him calm. "No violence, no trouble. You won't need to say a word, just watch the team work. They're the best in the business at what they do."
"Is there, uh," Wright gave a nervous, open-mouthed smile, eyes darting around the team and back to Nate. "Is there a lot of competition? Isn't the Licensed Minority Division the only group doing what you guys do?"
Nate smiled, and gave in to the impulse to step closer and pat Wright on the shoulder with his own gloved hand. Wright almost didn't flinch. "Trust me. They're the best."
Nate stepped back to a polite distance before he peeled the glove--brown suede, casual, because it didn't matter what the hell he wore while his team went into the field without him--from his right hand. To his credit, Wright didn't actually back away.
Nate didn't push immediately, stepping toward Walt first. Walt pushed up his sleeve and peeled back the glove on his left hand, exposing a couple of inches of bare skin for Nate to touch.
Nate never let one of his teams out the door without working them. He'd done it hundreds of times by now, but he never let it be automatic, never gave it less than his full attention. He was a luck worker, and there were very few legitimate applications for his skill, but he could do this. He could make sure that when it came down to seconds of timing, the flip of a coin, the precise path of a bullet--when it came down to where the shadows fell, what the target noticed when he looked around, what kind of socks he was wearing--chance would fall on the side of his men.
He held that intention firmly in his mind as he pressed his fingers to Walt's wrist, covering up the intimate nakedness there, the veins so close to the surface. His power poured warmly through his fingers, and Nate smiled at Walt and moved on to Ray, already waiting with his wrist bared.
Ray gave Nate the same cocky grin as always. "I'm already lucky as a motherfucker, sir."
"How lucky that is depends on the mother in question, Ray," Nate pointed out drily, and felt the luck surge from him into Ray. "Humor me."
"Always, sir, because I am a neverending fount of humor," Ray said cheerfully.
Nate moved on to Trombley, who as always offered the back of his hand instead of the underside of his wrist, keeping his own still-gloved fingers politely curled into a fist. It was something they were all taught to do when allowing themselves to be worked, and it only ever really stuck with guys like Trombley who'd grown up in the system. Nate pressed his fingers across Trombley's wrist, parting around the bump of bone at the outside, and gave him his fair share of luck for the night.
When he turned away from Trombley, Brad was waiting with his hands clasped behind his back. Nate raised another eyebrow and Brad just gave him that shiny, careless-looking smile that concealed a multitude of calculated decisions to fuck the consequences. Nate wasn't going to mess with the routine anyway, regardless of their audience, but it was good to know Brad felt the same. If Wright hadn't heard some version of the scuttlebutt about Nate and Brad, he would soon. Nate raised his bare hand and Brad tilted his head, letting Nate press his whole hand to the side of Brad's throat, a barely-allowable public intimacy. Nate closed his eyes, because he knew better than to watch Brad's face when he did this.
He looked away from everyone when he stepped back from Brad, and then turned toward Wright when he had his professional smile back in place. "Your turn, Reporter. Nobody goes out on a mission without getting luck-worked."
Wright looked more startled than he should have, or maybe just extra unnerved now that the moment to submit to being worked had arrived. "Oh! Yeah, um, but I have amulets...."
"Just pull the luck off and give it here," Nate said patiently, crooking his bare fingers.
Wright looked around sheepishly and then opened his pants and pulled out a whole string of amulets, handing them into Nate's still-gloved left hand. Nate smiled slightly and put the amulets behind his back, moving in with his bare fingers to keep Wright's attention on him. Wright nodded jerkily and tugged the top of one glove down, offering Nate his wrist.
Even Nate barely felt Brad come up behind him and kill the amulet against emotion work.
By the time he'd worked Wright and handed back the amulets, Brad was on the other side of the room again, going over comm details with Ray. Wright stuffed the amulets hastily back into his pants--crumpling his clothes further and almost certainly not getting all of them correctly set against his skin in the process, but Brad would be keeping an eye out for him anyway. If anyone worked the reporter tonight, it would be Brad.
"All right, gentlemen," Nate said, tugging his glove back on. "You're cleared hot. Poke and Lilley are on your comms--" Nate watched their faces to gauge when Poke and Lilley piped up; Brad's mouth twitched very slightly, Walt actually smiled enough to show teeth, and Trombley smiled quickly in imitation. Ray let out a loud bark of laughter. Wright, watching all of them and not hearing any more than Nate was, looked nervous all over again.
"And I'll see you when you get home," Nate finished, drawing their attention just enough to wave them to the door.
"Mount up, team," Brad said, herding all of them, including Wright, ahead of him into the garage. He didn't look back; the last glimpse of his face Nate had was a reflection in one of the darkened screens on the wall. It was enough to see Brad wink as he went, and Nate smiled even as the foreboding feeling of his blowback settled in.
According to Newton, every action had an equal and opposite reaction. Hyperbathygammic manipulation--work, be it luck, emotion, death, physical work or memory work or dream work, even transformation work, if such a worker ever existed--obeyed more or less the same principles. Every worker suffered blowback every time he worked, in the same realm as his working. And no matter what the work was, whether it was maliciously or kindly intended, the blowback was an increase of entropy.
Physical workers took physical damage; death workers suffered a small death, hopefully of a body part they didn't need too much. But luck was a strange and fickle thing, and entropy was an unpredictable bitch. Nate's blowback had taken many forms--the worst was when he found himself suddenly subject to one weird coincidence after another, not predictably good or bad, just suddenly, intensely surrounded by his luck.
Nate walked out of the ready room and waved to Poke and Lilley in the communications office. Brad's team wouldn't have left the garage yet, still getting Walt into position; Lilley waved back, but Poke was staring into the cameras, obviously in mid-rant about something. Probably the oppression of workers or the fact that the crime families had their good points, but Nate knew better than to poke his head in the door and find out.
He went to his own office, closed the blinds, and scooted his phone as far away across his desk as he could get. He wouldn't have anything to do with a team in the field while he was suffering blowback, wouldn't even monitor them one-way in case his luck became theirs. He sat down at his computer instead, and pulled up a gambling website. He'd gotten it specially whitelisted by IT for this purpose, and he supposed that if his boss ever ordered it, or IT were ever bored enough, there would be audits to make certain that his visits corresponded with his authorized and logged instances of luck work. They all would, of course; Nate had other options for waiting out blowback when he didn't want to leave a record.
The website required him, like everyone, to play a series of entirely luck-based mini-games before he was allowed to actually wager on anything. He let out a sigh of relief when he lost one after another after another; he had the blowback from five workings to burn off, and bad luck was a reassurance. It felt balanced this way, like he was paying a price for what he'd given his men.
A warning screen popped up, informing him that his performance in the games he'd played so far was statistically unlikely, and there was a possibility that he had been the victim of luck work. It advised him to call the Licensed Minority Division's hotline for suspected worker activity but--unlike those rare occasions when his luck turned unnaturally good due to blowback--gave him the option to ignore the warning and play. Nate clicked in, found a game, and prepared to pay for his team's safety until he was sure the blowback was gone.
Evan took the rear-facing seat directly behind Colbert, and Trombley sat down next to him. Hasser was already in place, tucked into a screened compartment under the forward-facing seat, ready to slip a hand out and work their target with a touch on the ankle, which, as they had told him in the briefing, was usually easier to get at than the hand or neck. People weren't as careful about where they put their feet.
Once they'd told him that, Evan had gone out and bought very thick, very tightly-woven socks that went up nearly to his knees. He didn't distrust the workers he'd met so far at the LMD--not that he was going to stop keeping an eye on where Trombley's hands were at all times--but, well. There was a reason they were called Heebeegeebies, and it wasn't just the acronym. Workers gave everyone the creeps.
The car rolled out of the garage smoothly, with no particular discussion; the men kept going silent in a way that Evan thought meant they were hearing something over the comms. It didn't seem to be anything important. None of them said much, leaving Evan plenty of time to mentally rehearse the instructions he'd been given about not fucking things up.
"Brad," Walt said suddenly. "Reporter has no fucking poker face, he's freaking me out. You're gonna have to ice me."
"On it, Walt," Brad said, right behind Evan. "Reporter, you're not looking at where Walt is, are you? Because that could blow the entire investigation."
Evan snapped his eyes up to the rear window, and Trombley laughed.
"Shit, Reporter, my wife's got a better poker face than you."
Evan tried not to contemplate the possibility of a Mrs. Trombley. Trombley kept his gloves on all the time--that was the only thing he could believe and stay sane. "Uh, you're not all going to keep calling me Reporter the whole time, are you? Because that would--"
Ray snorted. "Shit, Reporter, nobody's going to be talking to you at all while the op goes--oh, hey, a parking space! Must be my lucky fucking day."
"Every day's your lucky day when you work for the LMD, Ray," Brad said blandly.
Even after seeing him with Fick before they left (Evan couldn't imagine what kind of hold someone had to have on you before you let them put their bare hand on your throat, but he wouldn't have done it for any boss or any girlfriend he'd ever had) Evan wasn't sure if that was comment on having a luck worker as their agent in charge or piety on the topic of being one of the good guys.
The car stopped after only slight maneuvering, and Brad got out and got in again through the back door, sitting down on the seat that concealed Walt.
Evan couldn't help looking down as Brad stripped off his right glove and Walt stuck his arm out, the sleeve of his coat and shirt pushed back and the top of his glove folded down to give Brad an entire hand's width of exposed skin to work.
Evan wasn't a prude. He'd worked for Hustler. He'd seen plenty of bare hands watching porn to write reviews and getting all the weird amateur photos people sent in for Petting Zoo. He just hadn't realized, until he got this gig embedding with the LMD, that it wasn't only that most of those hands were women's hands. The men's hands you did see were mostly slender, hairless, soft-looking, and never, never used like this. Brad's hands, like Fick's hands, didn't look like something he could think of as dangerously, thrillingly sexy. They looked like what they were: weapons.
Brad closed his hand around Walt's wrist, ducking his head so that Evan couldn't see his expression. Walt gave an unmistakable sigh of relief from under the seat, though, and he said calmly, "Seriously, Reporter, stop looking."
"He's a kinky fuck, he likes to watch," Brad said, still sounding as bland as Brad always did, patting his hand against Walt's gloved knuckles until Walt withdrew his arm out of sight. "We don't judge."
Brad sat back in the seat, sinking in like he was tired. He didn't put his glove back on. He patted the seat beside him. "Come here, Reporter."
"Uh," Evan said, looking from Brad to Trombley to Ray, up front, who was looking back with a big grin.
"Come on, if you freak Walt out again I'm going to have to ice him again. Might as well just ice you right now and save the time."
"Aren't you--blowback...." Evan couldn't put the thought into a complete sentence. It was too obscene, and not in a fun way.
Brad showed his teeth in something that wasn't exactly a smile. "You waiting for me to start crying? You think every emotion worker is one touch away from being some screaming bimbo from a soap opera?"
"N-no, no, of course not," Evan said, and wondered what quieter emotional instability the blowback was bringing down on Brad, and how much more dangerous that made the mission.
"Then come over here and get iced so we can all be totally fucking calm while we do our jobs," Brad said, patting the seat beside him again.
Evan looked around again, pointlessly, because he knew no one on Brad's team was going to help him now. They'd probably all been worked hundreds of times; twice in one day probably didn't register with them at all, apart from the intended effects.
"Right," Evan said, "okay, uh." He moved to sit on the edge of the back seat next to Brad, not leaning back easily like he did. He reached for the fly of his pants, wishing again that he'd thought of somewhere less embarrassing to keep his amulets.
"No need for that," Brad said, still sounding perfectly even. "Unless you're even kinkier than I thought."
Evan looked up sharply, his hands going still. "What...."
Brad's mouth moved toward a smile again, looking slightly more sincere this time, if not a lot nicer. "If you're going to hand your amulets to a worker, you want to keep both of his hands in sight until he gives them back. Don't worry, you're still safe from the biggies, I didn't let Trombley near 'em."
Brad put out his bare hand and made a beckoning gesture. Evan considered arguing and then gave up.
He clumsily pushed up his sleeve and peeled down the top of his glove--the whole point of gloves was that they didn't come off or bare skin easily, he had no reason to feel like an idiot right now--and finally, flinchingly, offered his wrist to Brad.
Brad used just the tip of his index finger. Evan hadn't felt anything other than the shockingly direct touch of fingers when Fick worked him, but luck wasn't something you could really feel, despite the ways people talked about it sometimes. He expected to feel something--something cold, from the way they talked about it--from Brad, but he felt only the single spot of warmth under Brad's finger and nothing else at all, no sudden surge of happiness or sadness or... or anything at all.
It took Evan most of a minute to realize he didn't feel anything at all, not nervous or aggravated or even creeped out. He was sitting in a car with four workers, one who could grab his foot at any time, one actively working him after destroying the amulet that should have prevented it, one a death worker, and he didn't feel anything about any of it. His heart rate was perfectly steady. He wasn't even sweating.
"Oh," he said. "Huh."
"Yeah, homes," Ray said, grinning from the front seat. "It's like that."
The call light on the dash blinked, and Ray hit the button to lower the divider. He twisted as the smoked glass sank down to check out the scene in back.
Brad was sitting next to the target, who he'd apparently blissed right out of his skull. The guy had a wide, sloppy grin that looked really weird above the black keloid scar of a Zacharov laborer. There was a bulge in the leg of his pants where Walt's hand was shoved in around his ankle, loading him up with all those pre-scripted memories about his attack of conscience and his decision to work with the good guys.
"Here," Brad said, leaning forward, holding out a slender black phone with his gloved hand. Ray let the reporter take it from him and pass it over, and then twisted around to sit facing front in the driver's seat so he could do the non-driving part of his job. He looked the phone over as he tugged the glove off his right hand with his teeth and heard, as he always did, his mother's voice telling him he'd ruin his gloves that way and they didn't grow on trees. They pretty much grew on shelving units down in Supply, though, so Ray dug his teeth in extra-hard and yanked the glove free, leaving it dangling from his mouth as he fondled the phone bare-handed.
Phones didn't respond as well to bare skin as they did to leather, but he managed to make his wishes known to this one. He shifted his bite-grip on his glove to the side of his mouth and called back, "Password?"
There was a short pause while either Brad worked the guy to feel helpful or Walt made him remember that they were all buddies here and Ray was just going to fix something on his phone. The target said, "Yelena."
Ray shook his head in despair and tapped it in; if he'd bothered to try, the girlfriend's name would have been his third guess, right before the wife and right after the kids. That wasn't even enough guesses for the phone to lock him out. He plugged it in to the sync box that would upload the phone's entire contents back to Poke and Lilley at the office. While that was humming away, Ray pulled out the little clean box and dragged a sterile plastic glove over the leather on his left hand.
When the sync box chirped that it was finished, Ray used his bare hand to unplug it and propped it on his thigh. He took a deep breath and then touched the sealed casing. The back panel split open for him, exposing the internal circuitry, and Ray set the new chips in place with his gloved left hand, securing each with the slightest touch of his right finger before he worked the casing again, making it seal itself invisibly. Good as new, and no one would be able to tell the phone had been tampered with.
"Done," Ray said, tossing the phone over his shoulder and trusting Brad to catch it. Then he closed his hands on the steering wheel and gritted his teeth on his glove, waiting for the blowback to catch him.
He swallowed the noise he wanted to make, feeling a slice open up across his ribs, burning hot. He pressed his arm in against the spot as the unmistakable sticky flow of blood started. He felt the rest of it trailing after, bruised aches like the aftermath of a hard punch blooming in his belly and ending with a sudden shock of scalding heat across his face.
He couldn't help making a noise at that and hit the button to bring the divider back up. Walt's job got harder the more he had to make the target forget, and Ray really needed to scream his fucking face off for a second, because his face was on fire. He raised his hand and crammed some more of the glove into his mouth, gagging himself so he could really yell. He pounded his left hand against the steering wheel, waiting for the worst of the pain to crest, keeping his right arm pressed tight against his side.
He was mostly done when the passenger door opened and Brad got in. Ray spit out the glove and sat still, panting, while Brad pulled the door shut behind him with one hand and grabbed Ray's chin with the other. He had both gloves on, and his face had that bleak, flat look to it that Brad got when the blowback took hold, so like fuck was Ray going to ask to be iced when he knew it wouldn't hold against pain for more than a few minutes anyway.
"It's blistering," Brad said, and let go of Ray to get the first aid kit. He shook the ice pack to get it going and handed it over. Ray hissed again--the cold burned too--and then sighed a little as the pain settled down, although that reminded him that he was still bleeding.
Like he'd heard that, Brad said, "What else?"
Ray shook his head. "Not much, it's fine."
Brad looked like he was going to lecture Ray about logic and the importance of first aid, but then he looked the other way, watching his side mirror. Ray took his right arm away from his side enough to press his bare hand to the console between the seats--not working the car but using his ability to feel it out. The back door was standing open, and Ray felt the car's balance shift as a weight got out, and then the door slamming shut.
"Good to drive?" Brad asked, without much inflection.
"On it," Ray agreed, but he dragged his sodden, tooth-marked glove back onto his right hand before he put the car in gear, letting the ice pack fall into his lap. He'd be too tempted to work the car instead of steering it, otherwise, and he didn't need the blowback from that on top of what he already had.
They were maybe halfway back to the office when there was a muffled thud and a yell from the back compartment, and Brad slapped his hand down on the control for the divider and yanked his glove off, letting through the sound of Walt yelling "Who are you, who the fuck are you," and Trombley yelling, "Walt! Dude, it's just the reporter, chill out!"
Brad said evenly, "Walt, knock it off, it's blowback," and climbed through to the back.
The sounds of struggle continued until Walt said, "Oh. Right. Sorry," sounding like he was iced halfway to unconsciousness.
"It's okay, good story," the reporter said, sounding hoarse, and Ray winced and then cursed under his breath and grabbed the icepack to press against his face again, because wincing hurt like a motherfucker. Everybody in back stayed quiet the rest of the way home.
When they were in the garage, Ray took off his seatbelt and then just sat there, waiting, his bare fingers tangled in it so he could feel people getting out as well as hear them. One, two, three--Trombley, Reporter, Brad. When they were all inside and the echoes had died down in the garage, Ray grabbed the first aid kit and got out, going around to the back door.
Walt was sitting on the floor next to his hidey-hole, staring down at his phone. He had his left sleeve pushed up all the way to his elbow, showing the only tattoo Ray had ever seen on him: YOU'RE ONE OF THE GOOD GUYS NOW. Ray pulled the door shut and sat down beside him, nudging him with the first aid kit.
"Here, trade. I'll read your questions, you tape me up."
Walt glared down at his phone, but then he nodded and set it down between them, picking up the first aid kit when Ray put it within reach. Ray shrugged out of his coat, and Walt's head jerked up, his expression going horrified, which meant the ice had worn off for sure.
"Jesus fuck, Ray, what did you have to do to that phone?"
Ray's white dress shirt was pretty red, now, and Ray felt a little bit woozy just looking at it.
"Yeah, lay the fuck down, I'll cut your shirt," Walt said, shoving Ray gently.
Ray went, lowering himself to the floor and then sighing at the relief of not holding himself up anymore. He propped Walt's phone in front of his face, squinting to see the next question on the screen--he should have them memorized by now, but Walt sometimes added new stuff when he thought of something to be afraid of forgetting--and hissed. Squinting hurt, too.
"Wait, what is--what the fuck did you do to your face?" Walt demanded. "No, fuck this, if I forgot that reporter that was probably the only thing. Come on, you're going to the fucking infirmary. Jesus."
Ray huffed, hiding a smile. Walt was back in working order: mission accomplished. "Lay down, get up, take your clothes off, what's on your face. Christ, Walt, are you gunning for team leader?"
"Save it for Doc," Walt snapped, leaning across Ray to open the door and half-dragging him through it. "And don't you fucking do anything to my phone."
The mission, along with being essentially successful, had been enough of a clusterfuck that there was no point trying to debrief right away. Ray was in the infirmary with blowback, Evan was in the infirmary with Walt's blowback, Walt was listening intently while Poke and Lilley explained to him about Evan Wright being a reporter for Rolling Stone who was going to write a story about the LMD, and Trombley, as usual, hadn't gotten to kill anybody and was bitching about it.
The fact that Brad couldn't feel irritation at Trombley didn't make his whining any more useful to listen to.
"Trombley," he said, when he'd concluded that it was pointless. "Shut up. You don't have to go home, but you can't stay here."
"Sure thing, boss," Trombley said, with a weirdly cocky grin that Brad had never been able to parse, blowback or no blowback.
Trombley left, and then it was just Brad and Agent in Charge Fick in the conference room next to the communications office. Fick said, "You should go home, Brad. Get some rest."
That raise of the eyebrows, waiting for an answer, that wasn't Agent Fick. That was Nate.
Brad knew better than to argue. He knew Nate would send someone after him if he didn't come to Nate's tonight. He nodded.
Nate nodded back and turned away, off to check on the guys in the infirmary or fill out some paperwork or whatever kept an Agent in Charge busy after his team had clocked out. Brad headed down to the locker room to shower and change into his own clothes before he got his bike from the garage.
He went directly to Nate's, because he was too tired to resist tonight. He knew that all the logical reasons that might occur to him for going anywhere else were specious. He got himself a beer--it had a limited set of effects on Brad's blowback, but it would help him get to sleep faster--and went to sit on Nate's balcony, staring out over the city.
Brad knew, intellectually, that blowback was damage. Ray and Walt had the kind of blowback that made that obvious: skin breaking open, memories disappearing. Trombley would too, if he'd ever killed anything that rated real blowback. Half the reason the kid bitched so much about never getting to kill anyone had to be that he never had, and so didn't know what form his blowback would take. Even Nate usually had bad luck as his blowback, and the other kinds of blowback he got were weird enough to be obvious disadvantages. So Brad knew that his own blowback was, empirically speaking, the same thing. The total absence of detectable emotions wasn't a normal state of being. It wasn't healthy, long-term, in its effects on people.
All the same, Brad's blowback felt like a reality that was usually obscured. No one knew better than an emotion worker how real emotions were, or how powerful. Being without them felt like a whole new kind of power, a cold kind of freedom. Nothing could hurt him now.
He sipped the beer Nate had bought because it was Brad's favorite, and his thoughts ran down the familiar paths. His blowback had been worsening over time. He didn't work as much as he used to, his first few years in LMD, and they were mostly letting him stick to his specialty--icing people instead of heightening their emotions in one direction or another--but the blowback lasted longer, in proportion to the work he'd done, month after month and year after year. This bout shouldn't be so bad--the ice had already worn off everyone he worked, so Brad probably only had hours of blowback left--but sooner or later he was going to be needed to do long-term work on a target. Sooner or later he'd work someone and the blowback just wouldn't wear off.
When it did, he wouldn't ever be sad or angry ever again, and he wouldn't be happy ever again, and he wouldn't love Nate at all. It was a scary train of thought when Brad was able to be scared, so he didn't think about it much except at times like this.
He was pretty close to the end of the bottle when he heard Nate come into the apartment. He got up and went inside, finding plates and silverware in silence while Nate unpacked the Thai food he'd brought in. Nate pulled two beers from the fridge, drinking the last swallow of Brad's first one before he tossed the empty into the recycling bin.
When they'd filled their plates and were sitting side by side on barstools at the counter, Nate bumped his shoulder against Brad's. "Have you arrived at the conclusion that we should break up now so I don't waste the prime of my life on someone who won't love me anymore or have any kind of emotional function at all in five or ten years?"
Brad shrugged and chewed. "I'm not going to bother trying to convince you if you're not going to take me seriously."
"I do take you seriously," Nate said, calmly, after he'd taken a sip from his beer. "I just don't agree with you and will never agree with you."
Brad shrugged again. Someday it would be real, and until then neither of them could know what Nate would do about it. Brad could function without Nate, or a Nate-equivalent, in his life. Once the blowback became permanent it wouldn't matter to him one way or another. They didn't even officially live together; they couldn't while Nate was his agent in charge, and Brad was in no hurry to be supervised by anyone less competent than Nate, which was everyone at the LMD. He just wouldn't come over here anymore, and Nate wouldn't drop by his place, and that would be the end of it. He wouldn't care.
"Did we get anything interesting off the phone?"
Nate accepted the diversion and they started dissecting the night's op and planning out how to continue pursuing the case, which lasted them through dinner and putting away leftovers and rinsing off the dishes. Brad turned away from putting things into the dishwasher and found Nate standing in the middle of the kitchen with the kind of thoughtful look on his face that had nothing to do with LMD strategizing.
"I want you to do something for me," Nate said. He still sounded deliberately calm; he usually tried to match his affect to Brad's when Brad had blowback. If Brad never convinced Nate to end it, someday they would go through all these motions this way, cool and remote.
For now, though, he was pretty sure the feeling was going to come back by morning, so it was worth doing what Nate wanted. He nodded.
"Take off your gloves," Nate said, tugging his tie down and opening the collar of his shirt.
He was tired, and icing Nate would only make him more tired and make the blowback last longer, but it might make Nate understand why this wasn't going to work in the long run, better than anything he could ever say. He should have thought of it sooner, but he would never work Nate without being invited to--nor in any other way than Nate invited him to--and long-range strategy was Nate's job anyway.
Brad tugged his gloves off and stepped in front of Nate, offering his hands. Nate took hold of both of Brad's wrists and said, "I don't want you to work me. I just want you to touch me and see if you can tell what I'm feeling."
Brad sighed. "I can tell, but I can't feel it when I'm iced, Nate."
"I know," Nate said, and tipped his chin back, baring his throat to Brad's hands. "Just tell me what I'm feeling."
Brad nodded and tugged his hands free of Nate's, and Nate waited, head tilted back, until Brad wrapped his hands around Nate's throat. He closed his eyes, feeling out Nate's emotions, touching them without manipulating them, learning the shapes of them by their availability to his power.
"Worried," he said out loud, because that one was easy and constant. Nate worried about all of them all the time. Under that was something too warm and complicated and knowing to be pity; it would be sympathy, he supposed, if he had feelings himself right now for Nate to be sharing.
"Sad," he summarized. "And hopeful, you fucking ridiculous optimist."
"You have yet to disappoint me," Nate said, and Brad could feel the words against his palms in a purely physical way that blended strangely with everything else he was touching. "I'll stand by that one."
Underlying and motivating it all was the central feeling, as warm as Nate's skin against Brad's palms. "You love me."
"Yeah," Nate said softly. "I stand by that one, too."
Brad opened his eyes. He wanted to feel these things. He wanted to be sad with Nate, or to be better than he was so Nate wouldn't have to be so fucking sad about him, with that gray edge of resignation blunting the feeling, worn down with repetition.
"I would love you if you forgot things," Nate said softly. "Even if you forgot me, I would love you and hope you loved me again once you got to know me. I would love you if you came back from every mission bleeding and banged up. I would love you if your fingers rotted off or your teeth fell out. I would love you if you had bad dreams or bad luck. I would love you if you cried or screamed or couldn't stop laughing. I love you because that's the part that's up to me. You loving me back is good, because it means you'll stick around for me to love you, but if you can't do that anymore I won't stop."
Brad flexed his fingers against Nate's throat and closed his eyes again, resting his forehead against Nate's. "I could make you."
"Yeah," Nate said, and Brad couldn't tell, even with both his hands on Nate, whether it was acknowledgment or permission. "You could. If you really thought the logical thing was for me to stop loving you, you could take that away from me."
Brad swallowed, searching out the logic of it, the thought processes and habits that had to stand in for real feelings when the blowback hit. After a long time--while Nate stood still under his bare hands, and not one flicker of fear or anger passed under Brad's fingers--Brad said, "I don't want to take anything away from you."
"That's enough," Nate said quietly, and he brought his gloved hand up to hold the back of Brad's neck while he pressed a brief, plain kiss to Brad's mouth. "Come on, let's go to bed."
Brad left his gloves in the kitchen, and when they crawled into bed he held out his bare hand to Nate again. Nate sat up and took his shirt off, lying back and folding his own arms behind his head. Brad settled his hand on Nate's bare chest and felt Nate's trust there waiting for him, on top of everything else. Nate fell asleep like that, exposed to any work Brad might have chosen to do on him, and Brad felt trust and anxiety both melt away into a warm sense of well-being, glowing golden like a night light.
Brad didn't realize he'd fallen asleep himself until he abruptly woke up, startled by something, as if there had been a noise, or a light turned on. He didn't realize what it was until he looked down at his hand on Nate's chest and relief surged through him, dragging everything else in its wake.
He pushed in closer to Nate, spooning up behind him. Nate let himself be moved, compliant in sleep as he never was awake.
"I love you," Brad whispered in his ear, and felt Nate come most of the way back to consciousness.
He smiled drowsily and covered Brad's bare hand with his gloved one. "My lucky night."