It’s not like Nate’s never been picked up in a bar before, but he doesn’t ever remember it going quite like this.
In his experience, gorgeous, stacked, and insanely tall blondes who look like they should be gracing the cover of a Victoria’s Secret catalogue don’t generally saunter into grimy Cambridge dives populated by obnoxious Harvard grad students, walk straight up to his booth, plunk themselves down next to him without so much as a by-your-leave, and open with “I certainly hope that you’re not drinking Coors Lite or some similar lowbrow swill, or else I will have lost all faith in the pretentiousness of the dicksuck Ivy League communist elite of this country.”
Nate stared at the blonde, and she stared back. Her honey-colored hair was straight, in a jagged, spiky cut that just brushed her shoulders, framing an angular, high-cheekboned face whose features only just missed being too bold for femininity, and were all the more arresting as a result. Her striking features were dominated by a frankly stunning pair of ice blue eyes, which were currently wide and serious, fixed upon Nate’s face, and yet they were mocking him at the same time. Challenging him. Huh.
An indignant response to her sally would mean he’d already lost, he knew. He’d played this game too many times to count, but this was the first time he could remember playing it with a woman. A civilian woman, at that.
Still, he knew the rules. He raised a single eyebrow in reply and slid his glass over in front of her. “Harpoon IPA,” he said.
“Microbrew, local but not obscure,” she observed. “A bit bourgeois, perhaps, but acceptable.” She picked up his half-full pint glass and downed it in one go, before slamming it back down on the table and giving Nate a wide, shit-eating, slightly foamy grin. Nate knew it was a total cliché to find it unbearably hot when a woman did things like that, but that didn’t change the fact that it was, in fact, unbearably hot. Especially when it was a woman who looked like this.
He pulled his gaze from her with some difficulty and glanced across the booth, where his roommate was sitting with his mouth hanging open. “Mark,” Nate said, significantly, “would you mind…”
Mark blinked, looking woken from a trance. “Uh,” he said, intelligently, but then he caught on immediately, bless him. “Yeah, I’ll… catch you later, man.” He slid from the booth, eyes still hung helplessly on the blonde, who was paying him no attention whatsoever, and stumbled off, no doubt to call everyone he’d ever met to tell them about Nate’s Big Score. Nate sighed inwardly.
“So, Harvard,” the blonde said to Nate. She wiped her mouth absently, licking a bit of spilled ale off the pad of her thumb, and Nate tried to pretend that didn’t make his pants get a tiny bit tighter. She half-turned toward him and drew one leg up onto the seat, leaving barely two inches of free space between them, and hooked one elbow over the back of the booth. Nate noted in passing that her arm, while smooth and proportionate to the rest of her, was subtly corded with muscle; she was no flimsy desk jockey, that was for sure.
Meanwhile she was gazing at him with that same earnest, possibly-mocking stare. “So tell me. You come here often?”
So it was a cliché contest now, was it? “Clearly not often enough,” he supplied the obvious rejoinder, with equal mock-seriousness, letting his eyes rake over her, once.
Her lips drew up in a half-grin, and she gave him a little nod of approval for correctly guessing the game. “Clearly not,” she replied with a smirk, and suddenly darted in close, brushing her lips with his. Nate felt a jolt of electricity surge through him at the fleeting touch before she drew back, her eyes dark. Nate licked his lips without meaning to, and saw her eyes follow the movement before she quirked a smile at him again, falling back into her previous playful mood. Nate smirked back, relaxing along the back of the booth. He hadn’t enjoyed a flirtation so much in years, and he was pretty sure he already knew where this was going. Go Team Fick.
“And this is where you give me your best line for getting the girls to go all melty inside,” she instructed him, solemnly.
“Honey,” Nate replied, with a perfectly straight face, “you look so good I could put you on a plate and sop you up with a biscuit.”
Her eyes widened and she burst into startled, completely spontaneous laughter. Nate grinned, triumphant. He had won that round quite handily, if he did say so himself.
She seemed to agree, giving him a golf clap even as she was still chuckling. “Holy hell, Nate,” she snickered, “that’s the worst pick-up line I’ve ever heard. Congrats.”
Nate blinked, grin fading. “How did you know my name?”
She blinked at him a moment in turn, and then the smile dropped off her face. “Uh,” she said. “I – asked around.”
“You asked around,” Nate repeated. “About me.”
She shrugged, not quite nonchalantly enough. Her face was still now, carefully blank. “Yeah.”
Nate knew he must look skeptical, probably because he was. “Any reason you were asking about me in particular?”
She gave him a smoky look and slid closer on the bench, leaning forward so that her low-cut shirt gave him a thoroughly good look at her (spectacular) cleavage. “Does it matter?” she asked, pale blue eyes gazing at him through thick black lashes, and laid a hand on his thigh, just below his crotch.
Just like before, her touch was electric, and Nate felt it thrumming all through him, warm and crackling. Shit, maybe it didn’t matter. The hottest woman he’d ever seen in person was offering herself to him on a silver platter; what difference did it make if she’d found out his name already? He should just let go, enjoy himself.
But… no. Dammit, but no.
This was… off. Something about the whole scenario was seriously pinging Nate’s radar, and he’d learned the value of following his instincts a long, long time ago. He leaned back from her slightly and moved her hand off his thigh, gently but firmly.
“Yeah,” he told her, “it matters.”
She pursed her lips in momentary frustration, and then tried a pout. This happened to be a scorchingly good look on her, even if she didn’t seem to be very good at it (lack of practice, perhaps?), but Nate only raised his eyebrows in reply, the same look he used to give his Marines when they tried to bullshit him.
The blonde evidently had no more trouble interpreting this look than his men had in Iraq, years ago. She sat back with an exasperated sigh, dropping the pout and the seductiveness together with an almost audible thump.
“Should’ve known,” she muttered to herself, and straightened, squaring her shoulders in a way that suddenly struck Nate as oddly familiar, even as he was thoroughly distracted by what the move did to her breasts. “I was doing re– I was checking you out specifically, yeah,” she admitted, changing direction mid-sentence. Nate frowned. What had she been about to say?
“Why?” he asked again.
She shifted, and said evasively, “You shouldn’t be that surprised that people would know who you are, Captain Fick. There are two books out there about you, after all.”
Oh. Nate felt a wave of disappointment. She was one of those, then. Shit, he should have known this was too good to be true. It usually was.
It always made him feel… used, when people hit on him because of the whole Rolling Stone thing, or even because of his own book. Maybe even more by the latter than the former. Maybe it was snobbish or hypocritical of him (or maybe just stupid), but he’d much rather someone want him for himself, than that someone want him just because he was (very slightly) famous.
It was a shame; there was something about her that had made him feel strangely comfortable, at home, despite her nearly supernatural hotness. But no more; all the lazy, humming sense of anticipation he’d been feeling while talking to her had vanished, and now he just felt tired.
“Right, of course,” he answered her politely. “How silly of me, I should have guessed.” He was trying to maintain a pleasant expression, but by the taken-aback look on her face, he wasn’t succeeding very well.
She studied him, surprise fading into a look Nate couldn’t quite interpret. “I’ve fucked this up, haven’t I,” she said. It wasn’t a question.
“No,” Nate lied, “It’s just…” He trailed off, even now still having no idea how to convey I don’t do starfuckers in any remotely socially acceptable manner. She seemed to get it anyway, and her lips twisted in a grin that Nate somehow knew was self-mocking, this time.
The sight of it gave Nate a sudden and inexplicably intense sense of déjà vu. He’d seen that lopsided, weary, beautiful grin somewhere before, he was sure of it. But he’d certainly remember meeting a woman like her if he had, and he hadn’t. He was sure of that, too. So, then, how…
The woman shook her head. “It’s all right, sir,” she told him, sounding resigned. “I have no fucking clue what I’m doing here, anyway.”
Nate frowned. Sir?
Then she seemed to realize what she’d said, and her eyes widened in something that looked almost like panic. “Nate, I meant,” she corrected herself. “Not – Sorry. I didn’t – there was no disrespect intended.”
Nate stared at her, feeling like there was something major he was right on the edge of understanding, like a word just on the tip of his tongue but not yet formed. Something about her smile, and that sir, and…
She jumped to her feet, so swiftly the booth table was knocked askew. Nate started in surprise. “This was a mistake,” she said, and her face was a study of overlapping emotions, something wistful and pained and angry all mixed up together. Then she seemed to pull herself together, blanking her face, and stood up ramrod straight.
“My apologies, Captain,” she said. “This won’t happen again. I wish – I wish you all the best.”
Then, as Nate gaped at her, she turned on her heel and strode out of the bar, going as fast as she could without actually running. Practically every guy in the place turned to watch her go.
Nate was watching her go too, but for entirely different reasons. His mind churned like an engine on overdrive. That had been no civilian apology. That had been no civilian. He’d seen that grin before. Dicksuck Ivy League communist elite. Ice-blue eyes. It’s all right, sir. Blonde hair. I was doing re-
I was doing recon.
“Holy fucking shit,” he said to himself, very quietly, and bolted to his feet and ran for the exit.
As ever, Ray had truly uncanny timing. Brad’s phone rang just as he was clearing the bar’s parking lot and hurrying out into the street.
His bike was in the lot, but Brad didn’t trust himself to drive it at the moment. Besides, he didn’t dare risk the time it would take; he had to get away now, now, now. He’d come back for it later.
His phone was still ringing. Brad pulled it out without breaking stride, turning a corner at random. Anything to get out of sight of the bar. Or anyone leaving it.
“Hey-hey, girlie-man, so how did – ” Ray’s voice began.
“Shut the fuck up, Ray,” Brad snapped, hating that his voice was now higher than Ray’s, if only slightly. And how was he supposed to properly ream anyone out when his voice sounded kind of… breathy... no matter what he did? “This is officially the stupidest fucking idea anyone has ever had in the history of mankind, and I ought to fucking punch myself in the face for even considering going along with it.”
There was a pause on the other end of the line. “So, not well, then,” Ray observed, brilliantly.
“Truly, Ray, your mental acuity knows no bounds,” Brad told him. At least his sarcasm was still in working order.
Brad turned another corner slightly too rapidly and almost stumbled. His reflexes and balance had improved drastically since the first few days of the change, but sometimes losing nearly four inches of height, not to mention compensating for having his entire center of gravity shifted thanks to wider hips and the two giant fucking masses on his chest, caught up with him unexpectedly. Thank God he wasn’t likely to be asked to fire a weapon anytime soon.
Or, possibly, ever again. Brad shook that thought off firmly.
“He actually turned you down?” Ray sounded incredulous. “What, were you wearing a bag over your head, or did the LT just have a dick-ectomy and we didn’t hear?”
“He thought I was a fucking starstruck groupie, you inbred simpleton,” Brad growled, turning into a less than savory-smelling alley between two buildings. “Of course he turned me down. I have no idea why we expected anything different.” No idea why I expected him to be any less… honorable, just because it’s a pussy in front of him instead of a dick.
Ray made a Huh noise, and Brad knew that Ray understood that without having to say it either. “Well, but I figured even the LT – I mean, have you seen you?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Brad told him, weariness replacing anger. “I had to get out of there anyway. He almost made me.” Another thing he should absolutely have expected, in retrospect.
“Not ‘almost’,” a voice said from behind him, and Brad stopped dead in his tracks.
Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck.
He closed his eyes, hoping with all his might that when he opened them none of this would ever have happened, that he would be back in England in the RM barracks with his unequivocally male self, instead of standing in some piss-smelling alley in Cambridge, in a fucking woman’s body, having been caught trying to seduce his own former commanding officer, because how the fuck did this happen to anyone, let alone him?
“Turn around,” Nate said to him. Brad didn’t move; couldn’t, for a moment. Nate’s voice sharpened, and it was Captain Fick who snapped, “I said turn around, Sergeant Colbert.”
Brad was turning, obeying that note of command, before he even fully realized it. He turned, and there was N- the captain, standing in the alley behind him, arms crossed over his chest. His green eyes bored into Brad’s, and Brad couldn’t look away.
“Oh, shit,” Ray’s voice said, and only then did Brad notice he still had the phone to his ear.
“Ray, I’ll have to call you back,” he said, faintly amazed at how calm his voice sounded, and hung up on Ray without another word. He stuck the phone in his pocket, using the move as an excuse to break his gaze from the captain’s. Then he did the only thing that seemed logical: he stood up straight, arms at his sides, and stared at the wall just over Nate’s right shoulder, waiting for… whatever was going to happen, to happen.
Nate stepped closer, running his gaze up and down the length of Brad’s body. But even from the corner of his eye, Brad could tell it wasn’t the way a man normally checked out a woman. This was… not clinical, exactly, but something close. Assessing, maybe.
Nate circled behind him, examining him from all angles, and Brad told himself it was ridiculous to tense up. If Nate was going to punch him, it would be face to face. He wondered, absently, if it would hurt more to be punched as a woman, or if it would feel about the same. It seemed reasonable to suppose “more”, but he’d read somewhere that women actually have a higher pain threshold than men, so what the hell did he know?
Nate made a complete circuit of him and ended up staring Brad in the face from less than a foot away, which brought into sharp, annoying relief the fact that Nate was now taller than Brad was. By less than two inches, but still. Brad resolutely kept his eyes on the wall opposite him, but he could see, in his peripheral vision, Nate’s brilliant green eyes roving over his features, no doubt cataloguing the differences from, or maybe searching for similarities to, Brad’s real face.
“Fucking hell,” Nate said at last. “It really is you, isn’t it?”
Brad almost blinked at the note of wonder in Nate’s voice, where he had been expecting only anger. But then Nate raised his hand toward Brad’s face, swiftly. Brad didn’t let himself flinch, exactly, but he couldn’t help bracing himself for the blow.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the captain’s eyes widen and his hand freeze in mid-motion. “What – Jesus, Brad!” he said, and this time he did sound angry. “Do you really think I would – ” he broke off and took a step back, as if appalled.
“I wouldn’t blame you if you did, sir,” Brad said quietly, still watching the wall. It was the simple truth. Brad’s actions this night had been unconscionable, in retrospect. No, not in retrospect; he’d known they were before he’d ever walked into the bar, and he’d done it anyway. But he’d been so sure it was the only way…
“Eyes on me, Marine,” Nate said, and Brad’s gaze snapped to him automatically. Nate gave him a stern stare. “That’s never going to happen, Brad,” he said, stressing each word. “Understood?”
Brad nodded, slowly. “Understood.” Of course, he thought. Nate would never hit a woman. Even if that woman happened to be Brad. Another thing he should have known about Nate Fick. It seemed his intel on his former CO was turning out to be very poor indeed.
“That said,” Nate continued, crossing his arms again, “I think you owe me an explanation. At the very least.”
Brad couldn’t personally think of anything he wanted to give less. “It’s better if you don’t get involved, Captain. I’ve caused you enough trouble – ”
“If you didn’t want me involved, Brad, then you probably shouldn’t have come all the way to Cambridge to hit on me,” Nate said, dryly.
Brad stiffened involuntarily, eyes shifting back to the wall. “Yes, sir. I was – ” desperate “ – my actions were inexcusable, sir.”
Nate tilted his head, considering him. Brad couldn’t decipher his expression, and doubted he would have been able to even if he’d been looking at the captain straight on.
At length, Nate let out a long breath, seeming to have come to some decision. “Okay,” he said, and turned away, back toward the mouth of the alley. “Let’s go.”
Let’s go? No, let’s going anywhere was a very bad idea. Brad tried one more time: “Sir, I don’t – ”
Nate spun back and took two swift steps forward until he was right back in Brad’s face, green eyes sparking with something very like fury. “Sergeant, I don’t pretend to have the first goddamn clue of what the fuck is going on here, but if you think I’m going to leave one of my men out in the cold when he’s in trouble, then you have seriously underestimated me, and frankly I resent the implication that I would even consider it. Now shut the fuck up and fall in.”
He turned again and strode off. Brad swallowed hard, and followed.