It was a long way home this time. Brad went from windy Afghanistan to rainy Britain and finally back to sunny California in a matter of weeks and now he wondered what the hell was he thinking. It looked like wherever the Marine Corps sent him, it was always a fuck up, and somehow he always ended up coming back for more. Hardly ever had he asked himself why.
Fuck, he was tired.
He went through all the tests and all the paperwork on autopilot. You’re never quite sure you’ve arrived home when you’re still bound to the base, that weird no man’s land. Brad longed for his bike and an open road, and for his board and the ocean, but he was also looking forward to just be in his own house for a change. He missed sleeping in his bed, trying hopelessly to fit on his couch, jerking off in his shower and eating at his own fucking kitchen table. Now that he was back, he had his empty home, his own space, and over a month of leave to spend however he wanted. No one could stop him now.
Aside from his family, of course.
“Hi, Mom,” Brad answered the phone, after Nolan dropped him off. He stood on the sidewalk and looked at his house. He breathed in and out.
“Where the fuck have you been?” Ray asked, opening the door.
“I’m happy you’re still alive too,” Brad said in answer. “Oh wait, let me think it over…”
“Always so dramatic,” Ray sighed and patted him on the shoulder. “Come on, we were waiting for you.”
“No, you weren’t.”
“No, we weren’t. Come on before there’s no beer left.”
The guys were sitting on the patio, occupying various kinds of chairs as well as little steps and, in Rudy’s case, grass. A few of them stood up to greet him and the rest grinned at him, as if they forgot he was an asshole to them most of the time. Semper fi: you may be a fucking asshole, but we’re always going to be glad you made it back.
“Gents,” he said in greeting, taking a cold beer from Ray.
“Brad, you’re a sight for sore eyes.” Gunny Wynn smiled at him and shook his hand. “Someone has to help keep these guys in check.”
“That’s on you, Gunny,” Brad said, ignoring a few lazy indignant heys.
“Traitor,” Wynn muttered, but he was still smiling, sitting down.
Brad grinned, showing teeth. He sat down next to Wynn and drank his beer slowly. Guys started to pick up the conversations where they were interrupted by his arrival and Brad let himself relax a little, felt the muscles give.
“How are you, Brad?” Mike asked, in that noncommittal way of his.
“Good,” he said, nodding once. “Glad to be back stateside, I have to say. There’s nothing like the Pacific out there.”
“You’re going to spend all of your free time in the ocean now, aren’t you?”
“All two glorious months of my vacation.” Brad smiled at the thought.
“Bo-ring,” Ray interrupted, sitting at the other side of Brad. “Seriously, Bradley, live a little.”
“Thank you, Josh,” Brad said, hiding his smile. “I’ll take that under advisement.”
They shot the shit for awhile, getting back into it as if they had not gone without seeing each other for two years. Brad still wasn’t sure how they became friends, but grudgingly admitted to himself that they did.
In between beers and barbecue, and pizza, he got updated on everyone’s life. Mike was teaching at the base (maybe they won’t be a complete waste), Ray was engaged (fuck, what did you do to that girl?), Poke and his wife had a new baby girl (she took after Gina, thank God) and Walt was leaving the Corps next month.
“Seems like it’s the right time, you know?”
Brad didn’t know, but it wasn’t really his place to say anything. You can’t keep a guy in the Corps if he doesn’t want to be there. It’s too dangerous to all involved.
“What are you going to do after you leave?” he asked instead, fingers playing on the bottle.
“I’m thinking of going to school.”
“Ah, Walt,” Ray said, throwing the arm around Walt’s shoulders. “A future Ivy Leaguer, aren’t you?”
“Fuck you, you train wreck of a human being.” Walt pushed him away, but he was smiling.
“Ray’s just jealous,” Brad said. “They wouldn’t let him in to any school. They would be too afraid for all the female students and all the animals living on the campus.”
“You wound me, Brad. I don’t like all the animals. Only the really cute ones.”
“Unless you’re drunk,” Brad replied. “But speaking of Ivy Leaguers, how is the LT doing these days? He’s supposed to be an Ivy League graduate soon, right?”
Smooth enough, he hoped, but the guys exchanged weird looks and he frowned.
“Bro, you’re really out of touch,” Poke said and shook his head. He looked at Mike like he was the one that should tell the story. Brad felt sick. He blamed the last beer.
“Someone better start talking fast.”
“He’s not dead or any shit like that,” Ray said quickly and a storm in Brad’s stomach eased up a little.
“Nate’s not at Harvard.” Mike did indeed step up to tell the story and Brad couldn’t help but notice how the rest of the guys fell mostly silent. “PTSD got him a few months after you left. He tried to go to school anyway, but in the end he couldn’t stay there.”
“Last time I talked to him, he mentioned he wants to go back sometime,” Rudy spoke up from his place at the grass.
“Maybe, but I don’t see it happening any time soon,” Mike said. “He has too much to do at Wringley’s and he likes it there.”
Brad tried to process, he really did, but mostly he wanted it to start making sense. Nate was supposed to be at Harvard. He was supposed to move on and have a life most people would envy him for.
“His friend from Afghanistan has a place for soldiers, veterans and their friends-and-relations,” Ray started explaining. “Wringley’s. It’s in Virginia, really close to the Quantico base. LT spent a few months there for his own treatment, now he’s working as a, I don’t know, therapist or something. A mentor, maybe.”
“It’s good for him.” Topic closed.
Brad nodded. There wasn’t much else he could do.
“I’m thinking of going to the East Coast for a while.”
His mom nodded.
“No reason.” Brad shrugged. “Just a long way to go.”
“You were away from here for two years,” she said, turning to the coffee maker and away from him.
“It’s different,” he said.
“If you say so.” His mother had that passive-aggressive shit all mothers had down to perfection.
“Mom, I can’t stay still for two months and you know it. I’d go crazy and I would either kill myself or you’d kill me for driving you crazy.”
“Brad, you haven’t even been here for a week. I’d say we are a long way from me being sick of you.”
“You will. I have to go, Mom.” If she wasn’t his mother, he wouldn’t be even explaining himself, but well. Mom had privileges no other person had. She’d earned it for the years spent taking care of his shit and not bailing.
“I know you have to. I’m just expressing my displeasure of that.”
“Duly noted,” he said, smiling slightly.
“Take care of yourself at least, okay?”
“I always do.”
“No, you’re spending half your life doing crazy things, Brad. And most of them are the exact opposite of taking care of yourself.”
“It works for me.”
Brad felt like he was reading from a script written years ago. And that was because they actually had that conversation almost every time they had seen each other. It always went like this: his mom worried, he said he was okay, his mom worried some more and then he did whatever he wanted and she dealt.
It would be nice if more of Brad’s relationships with people were like that, without maybe the part about worrying. Nobody had to worry about him.
He couldn’t sleep in his own bed and he couldn’t sleep in his parents’ house. After the usual post-deployment coma that lasted two days, Brad was now unable to sleep more than three hours a night.
He wasn’t happy.
It got better when he started his trip. He rode until three a.m. and he was basically asleep before he landed in his midget motel bed. He was tired enough that he didn’t wake up until eight. Not much, but he guessed it was an improvement.
It wasn’t until he had left Arizona behind him, that it hit him he actually had an end point in mind. His bike swayed a little when he realized he wanted to find Nate in Virginia and ask him what the fuck happened.
He didn’t want to think about how bad it had to get for Nate to even consider leaving Harvard. He remembered how much Nate wanted to study there and how happy he was to get that acceptance letter. Maybe the happiest Brad had ever seen him.
And the sting of pain surprised him. He’d tried not to think of Nate too much for the last two years and apart from the occasional dream or a half-formed memory in the middle of a long night, he succeeded. Nothing more than a typical thought about your ex from time to time. Brad was the one who had said there was nothing long-term between them. So what the fuck was he doing and what was with the what ifs that were appearing in the corners of his mind?
It was a shitty thing to do, Brad knew. To arrive at someone’s door without notice, after you had broken up with that person over two years ago and hadn’t seen them since. Hell, he would be pissed if Jess or Matt came over to his house without notice and they lived in the same city. But knowing it was fucked up didn’t make him change his mind and he did arrive at Nate’s door couple of days after leaving California.
It was almost nine thirty and definitely too late for an unexpected visit. He pressed the door bell ring.
“Hi, Nate,” he whispered, waiting for the door to open.
And then the door opened and a little blond boy in Spider-Man pyjamas looked up at him. Brad would never admit it out loud, but he did have a younger sister, so he had seen a movie that went like that. It didn’t end well.
“Ben, we talked about...”
Nate stepped out of the second door on the left, barefoot, in black slacks and a white shirt that was hanging open, showing off his torso. Brad found himself suddenly wondering if he was in some bizarre romantic comedy alternative reality or just in a really sick wet dream.
“...that.” Nate finished, staring at him. “Okay. Brad.” He blinked. “I didn’t... know you’re coming.”
I thought I’d stop by wasn’t really a good response in a situation like that, Brad suspected. But telling the whole truth would be complicated, especially since he didn’t actually know what that was.
The boy, Ben, looked from Brad to Nate and back.
“So you know him, right? That means it’s okay I opened the door.”
“You didn’t know who I was,” Brad said. He needed to say something at last, but judging from the accusing look he got from the boy, he didn’t win himself any points.
“Don’t open the door until you hear it’s your mom or grandma, Ben. That was the rule.”
Ben shrugged, muttered “sorry” and disappeared into the room down the corridor.
“Damn it,” Nate said quietly and Brad shoved his hands into his pockets. “I’m sorry. Please, come in. It’s just... kind of crazy right now.”
If Brad had stopped and thought about how awkward it would get, he still would not come up with that level of awkwardness. But Nate led him to the living room and Brad was moving away from the escape route.
“No, I’m... I’m sorry, I shouldn’t just barge in like that, without calling.”
Nate nodded, whether in agreement or simply accepting his words, Brad didn’t know.
“I’m glad you’re here. I heard you’re back stateside.”
And I heard you’re here.
“Yeah. Now I’m on vacation and a road trip sounded like a right idea.”
“You and your bike.” There was a small, honest smile on Nate’s face for a moment.
“Love of my life,” Brad said without thinking.
“Well, the Corps would be crushed to hear that.” Now the smile was definitely a forced one.
“The Corps is who I am. There’s a difference.”
Nate nodded at that.
“Are you staying around for awhile or you’re just passing by?”
“I don’t have anything planned. I thought about staying around for a few days, until I figure out where to go next. Speaking of,” he said, looking at his watch, “I should probably go look for a motel.”
He stood up and a second later Nate’s fingers were closing on his forearm. Brad tensed and the hand disappeared quickly.
“Don’t be stupid,” Nate said. “You’re not staying in a motel, you’re staying here. No arguing,” he stopped Brad before he could say anything. “My guest room is occupied tonight, but this is a folding couch, so you should be okay.”
“Nate...” Brad started, but Nate was half-way out of the room already.
“Go get your things. I’ll bring you sheets.”
Less than half an hour later Brad was showered and laying on the couch in Nate’s living room. He was staring at the coffee table like it could give him answers about what the fuck had happened tonight.
Two years made a difference, that was obvious. He just wasn’t sure he wanted to know how big a difference it was.
The bomb blew up and the blinding light forced him to close his eyes. Breath in, breath out, he opened them to see a semi-darkness of a strange living room and the green numbers on the DVD recorder’s clock showed a quarter to three.
There was someone in the house. Brad saw the shadow moving in the reflection on tv screen and he sat up without making a sound and took his knife from under the pillow. He turned around to see Nate in a gray Harvard t-shirt and black boxers standing next to the sink in the kitchen right across the hall.
Brad counted to ten, staring at Nate’s back, before he hid the knife back and lay down. He heard a sound of refrigerator being opened and closed and after that a click of the light and footsteps. Nate stopped in the entrance of the living room for a few seconds before going back to his bedroom.
Brad decided to wait a few minutes before doing push-ups, his standard method of trying to get tired enough to get back to sleep, but surprisingly he was asleep less than ten minutes after hearing Nate’s bedroom door closing.
The next time he woke up, the clock read half past six and someone was murdering the door-bell.
“Fuck,” Brad cursed loudly, rolling off of the couch.
“Bad word!” Ben screamed, running to the door. And then he opened it and jumped on a woman standing outside.
Nate came out of the kitchen, with a wide, happy smile. Brad watched from the living room how the woman hugged Nate and kissed him on the cheek.
“Looking good, handsome,” she said, patting him on the shoulder. And then she turned around and saw Brad. “Oh. Speaking of. Hi.”
“Control yourself, Meg,” Nate shook his head, but turned to look at Brad with a smile. “Meg, this is Brad Colbert, he served with me in Iraq. Brad, this is Meg Reynolds, the first friend I made after I came here.”
“The best one,” she added and then she came in to shake Brad’s hand. “Nice to meet you.”
“Likewise,” he nodded and tried for a smile. Judging from the way her smile didn’t falter, he probably succeeded.
She turned back to Nate.
“Listen, thanks again. I don’t know what I’d do without you.” She kissed his cheek again and pointed a finger at Ben. “Do you have everything packed? Come on, then, we don’t want to be late to school, right?”
“I don’t mind,” Ben said, trying for innocent. Brad half-turned to hide his smile.
“I bet you don’t,” Meg smiled too. “Come on, we’re going. Bye, Nate. It was nice to meet you, Brad. I hope I’ll see you on a barbecue on Sunday, if you are going to still be here?” She looked at Nate and then back at Brad.
“My pleasure. And it’s hard to say, I don’t know how long I’ll be staying here.”
“As long as you want,” Nate said easily, putting his hand on Brad’s elbow for a moment and letting go, like it was normal. Like there had never been anything else but easy acceptance and open invitation between them. Brad was trying not to just stand there and stare at him, but it took some work.
Nate turned to Meg.
“He’s just anti-social. But I’ll try my best to bring him with me.”
“Great,” she beamed. Brad was starting to worry that she was one of those people unable to not be in a good mood. “See you then.”
A few seconds later the door closed and they stood in silence looking at it.
“Wow,” Brad muttered.
He blinked twice before turning to Nate.
“She’s something, isn’t she?” Nate said, still grinning at the door. “They both are.”
“Nate.” Brad started and stopped, not knowing what to say next. He was really fucking unprepared for all this. It was a mistake.
“Yes?” Nate looked at him and they both just stared at each other for a long moment. Awkwardness was back.
“Listen, I don’t think...”
“Why are you here, Brad?” Nate asked, turning his whole body in Brad’s direction.
I want to know what happened. I want to know what changed.
“I was going crazy at home and had to go out.” The roundabout version was better than none, he supposed. And it worked for his mother. In a way. “East Coast was the furthest destination still in the country.”
“You’re heading to the East Coast next, then?”
“So you were heading to the East Coast and somewhere down the road you decided to visit me?”
He should know it wouldn’t work with Nate. He always had to know more. Brad suddenly got defensive.
“Listen, if it’s a problem, I can go.”
“Fuck you, Brad,” Nate said calmly. “I meant it when I said you can stay as long as you want. And when I said I’m glad you’re here. But that doesn’t mean I won’t ask any questions. We didn’t exactly part on good terms. I wasn’t expecting to see you anywhere outside maybe some big reunions, a wedding or a funeral.”
Brad nodded. It wasn’t like he was planning to show up on Nate’s door when he decided to take his bike and just ride for miles and miles. Not consciously, at least.
“So why are you here, Brad?”
“I heard about what happened. About Harvard,” he pointed at Nate’s t-shirt, which made Nate frown, “and everything. I guess I just wanted to ask you about it. Hear it from you.”
Nate nodded, but didn’t say anything.
“Listen, I understand it’s really not my place to ask.”
“Probably not,” Nate agreed. “But I can answer your questions. I’ve had time to learn how to talk about it, and I did. I just... can’t do that at the drop of a hat. And I certainly can’t do it right now,” he said, looking at the clock. “I have to go to work.”
He stepped back and looked around.
“You should put your stuff in the guest room, it’s yours now. Other than that, feel free to do whatever. I’ll give you my spare keys, in case you want to get out. I’ll be back around eight.”
In the end, Brad decided it definitely could have gone worse.
The barbecue turned out to be at Wringley’s, an event for soldiers and their loved ones. There were well over a hundred people around, Brad estimated. Maybe one hundred and forty.
“Big party,” he said, standing next to Nate near the coolers.
“Yeah, we do this every few months or so,” Nate smiled, looking at the group around the grill. “A break from all the shit we put them through on a daily basis.”
“A bribery, then?” Brad smiled, raising his brows.
“Something like it.”
“You have to bribe me with a beer now, then.”
Nate’s smile was making him look too young and too innocent for Brad’s liking. And not just because he felt like a pervert then.
“I didn’t tell you we don’t have any alcohol here?” Nate was obviously trying not to laugh.
Brad gaped at him.
“Please tell me you’re joking.” Brad wasn’t ready to face all of those people without a beer to keep him from killing someone.
“It’s a rule,” Nate shrugged. “Too many of our members have an alcohol problem. We’re not doing anything that could encourage them.”
Brad nodded. For all that it looked like a country club right now, Wringley’s was a treatment and recovery center. A respected one, from what Brad gathered during his research back in California.
“You’re doing good work here,” he said.
“We try,” Nate put his hands in his jeans pockets before looking at him. “You know, if you’re interested, I can give you a tour sometime next week. You could come in, see our group sessions and classes.” He looked back at the main building of the center. “Right now it’s deserted, so the tour wouldn’t give you much.”
Brad looked at Nate for a few seconds.
“I’d like that.”
“Great. Now, socialize.” Nate was back to trying not to laugh at him too obviously.
“I hate you,” Brad stated calmly. “I’m not leaving your side.”
“That sounds quite contradictory.”
“I’m a masochist.”
“There’s that,” Nate agreed with a smile, tilting his head to the side.
“But I demand a beer after this is over,” Brad added.
“I can live with that,” Nate nodded. “Come on, let’s eat something before I start introducing you around.”
“I can run on an empty stomach, too, you know,” Brad said, but fell in step with Nate anyway.
“Are you saying you’d run away, Brad?” Nate asked, raising his eyebrows.
“A Marine knows when to take a strategic retreat, sir,” Brad said and saw something flash in his eyes, before Nate looked away, nodding.
“Nate!” someone shouted suddenly.
They both turned to see Meg coming quickly in their direction.
“Hi, guys, I’m glad you’re both here,” she said fast, before turning serious. “But I’m afraid Nate’s needed inside. Something with Rick Stevens?” she looked at Nate questioningly.
“Damn it,” Nate muttered, frowning. “Okay, I’ll take care of this.” He turned to Brad. “I’m sorry, but I have to leave you alone for a while, I have to find Will and...”
“Will is already in your office,” Meg interrupted him. “And don’t worry about Brad, I’m sure we can entertain each other, right, Brad?” she grinned at him.
“Yes, Ma’am,” he smiled at her before looking at Nate. “Don’t worry, we’ll be fine.”
If he had to be stuck here without Nate, Meg was his best option. And he liked her, despite everything he might or might not be feeling about her and Nate. He was a master of compartmentalization.
Nate looked between him and Meg one more time, before nodding, apparently making a decision.
“Okay, I’ll find you as soon as I can.”
And he was off. Meg looked up at Brad, still grinning.
“Now we’re going to have fun.”
For a little person, Meg could definitely eat, Brad decided. Three turns at the grill and half a bowl of a potato salad later, she patted her stomach and declared herself full.
“I love these Wringley’s barbecues.”
“I can see that,” Brad smirked. She kicked him under the table in retaliation.
“Shut up,” she laughed. “I have a strong appetite. You should have seen me when I was pregnant, I didn’t stop chewing. My jaw hurt from all the eating.”
“Gross,” Brad told her. She rolled her eyes.
“Nate tells me that every other time we have dinner together.”
“He’s nothing if not honest,” Brad stated with a nod.
“He really is. That’s partially why he’s such a good friend,” she said with a soft smile. “He’s not bullshitting you, no matter what.”
"How did you become friends, anyway?”
“I live next door. I came around to welcome him in the neighborhood couple of days after he moved in and we started talking more and more after that.”
“At first I thought you two were dating,” Brad admitted. He still wouldn’t bet they’d never slept with each other.
"Yeah, at first he thought I was after that, too," she laughed. Then she frowned. "He sat me down and told me that a few months back he had his heart broken and he’s not looking for a date. Not to mention that he was just starting his treatment here. Turned out we both just needed a friend."
Brad swallowed his water, longing for a beer.
"When was that?"
"A little over two years now,” she said, smiling, and Brad felt like he was punched in the gut. The memories came back, unwanted, and he had to fight them back hard. It wasn’t the time or the place. Not now, not now. He breathed out slowly.
“... or I’d have some serious explaining to do to my partner,” Meg continued, looking at Ben, who was running around the picnic tables with a stick in his hand and some kind of warrior cry. “Not to mention our kid.”
“Rick’s overseas right now,” she added after a few seconds of silence. “Nate is the closest thing after Ben I have in this area right now. You’re not the first one to wonder.”
Brad had wondered and he would probably feel relieved now, if the words he had his heart broken weren’t still resounding in his head.
They had fun and, despite of everything, it was easy. Up until the end, at least. That was how Brad remembered it. Great sex, no need to explain himself, and the adrenaline of keeping it a secret from a bunch of Recon Marines and command. It didn’t matter that Nate wasn’t his commanding officer anymore. No one could know anyway (although Brad wouldn’t be surprised if someone did figure that out).
In Brad’s opinion, that was also the best way to deal with the fucked up mission Operation Iraqi Freedom turned out to be, but, looking back, it might not had been the best thing to say to a lover in terms of goodbye.
“There’s no need,” Brad said back then, when Nate wanted to make plans for the next time.
“What do you mean ‘there’s no need’?” Nate asked, frowning. He put the last t-shirt in his backpack and turned to look at Brad who shrugged.
“I’m going away in less than a month.”
“I’m aware of that,” Nate said in a distant voice that, looking back, maybe Brad should have paid more attention to.
“Well, there really isn’t going to be any chance of a long-distance booty-call, isn’t it?” Brad said. He thought it was obvious. “Anyway, I think we put OIF behind. I’m going to England, you’re going to Harvard. We’re moving on.”
“We’re moving on,” Nate repeated, crossing his arms.
“Yes. Am I missing something?” Brad really didn’t get why Nate was getting angry. It was unsettling.
Nate deflated a little, shaking his head.
“No, I guess... I guess I missed it. I should have... Nevermind. It’s fine.”
There was no fight. There was barely any discussion. Twenty minutes later Nate was out of the door and that was that.
”He sat me down and told me that a few months back he had his heart broken”. After five months of sleeping together, all Nate got in the end was basically “Thanks for a fun time, see you maybe-never, take care of yourself” and Brad had thought...
Well, it didn’t really matter what Brad thought, didn’t it? He was obviously wrong.
The bed in Nate’s guest room was much more comfortable than his couch, but it didn’t really help Brad fall asleep. His brain was stuck on the loop of the thought of Nate’s broken heart, on the realization that he misjudged the situation horribly and just left like Nate was a fuck, nothing more.
Brad had known back then that Nate didn’t want it to end when it did. He just didn’t think that the reason for it was something more than Brad’s skills in bed and their easy communication.
Apparently easy communication was just Brad being blind and stupid.
He got up and went to the kitchen, looking for water. Coffee would be a disaster right now, even if his chances of sleep were slim at this point. He sat at the kitchen table, swirling his bottle.
After a few minutes he heard the door open and after a few seconds someone was stumbling his way down the corridor. At least it sounded like stumbling, simple walking didn’t make so much noise, even for someone who wasn’t a Recon Marine.
But it was a Recon Marine. Nate appeared in the doorway, his hair going in every direction and Harvard t-shirt making him look like a college student. Someone he was supposed to be, would be, if life hadn’t fucked him over.
“Did I wake you up?” Brad asked. He thought he didn’t make any noise, but he was wrong a lot lately.
“No,” Nate said, coming in. He took a water bottle out of the fridge and leaned on the counter. “Ben did, he called me to talk.”
“If you want to ask me about…” Nate started, but Brad didn’t let him finish.
“You don’t need to explain anything to me.”
“Right,” Nate said, standing straight. “Okay, I just wanted to get something to drink. Good night.”
And he was gone, this time without almost any sound.
Brad didn’t have any idea what had just happened.
“Since you are back on the same continent that I am and you don’t have an excuse of the satellite phone, you could call me more often, you know.”
“Hello, Mother, how lovely to hear from you,” Brad said dryly, securing the helmet on his bike. “Apparently my absence led you to forgetting that I am in fact an adult.”
“Your sisters call me at least twice a week.”
“My sisters are…” pussies. “… different.”
“I’m just saying, once every two weeks wouldn’t hurt you,” his mom continued. Brad sat back on his bike. This could take a while.
“You never know.”
“You wanted me to grow up smart, remember?”
“I was obviously mistaken. I should have put more attention to teaching you how to use a phone.”
“Failure at parenting. Happens even to the best, I’m sure.”
“Apparently, yes.” She was smiling, he could bet. He was smiling too. “So, pleasantries exchanged, back to business. How are things?”
“Well, I’m alive and with all limbs attached.” That was a joke allowed only on American ground. Every time he was deployed, his mother lost her dark sense of humor the minute his plane, or ship, crossed the U.S border.
“I’m glad we established that. Where are you, anyway?”
“In Quantico. I’m meeting a friend soon, so I don’t have much…”
“Couldn’t pass by a Marine base, could you?” she was amused.
“Yes, Mom, I’m an addict,” he deadpanned. “I’m visiting another friend who lives nearby, actually. Nate Fick, remember, I told you about him.” At least some things.
“Your commanding officer in Iraq, of course I remember. You mentioned him a lot.”
“It’s not often we have a good officer like that.”
“It’s nice that you stayed friends.”
Brad had no idea what they were. He definitely wouldn’t call them friends for the last two years, and before that, well.
“Good officers aren’t easy to find. I kept this one close, so I wouldn’t forget they’re not all total fuck-ups.”
“How nice of you.”
“I bet you do.”
Brad looked at his watch.
“Look, Mom, I have to go now. I will call you.”
“You better,” she said with a warning in her voice. “Love you.”
“Me too,” he said and ended the call.
Steve Wilson was in Brad’s team in Afghanistan for four months before getting shot in the left leg gave him an one-way ticket back home. Since then, they met only once, three years ago, when Steve threw a farewell party before his transfer to Quantico. He was a sworn bachelor then, with the tendency to drink too much too often. Now he was married and expecting a child and he ordered black coffee with his fries.
“I don’t know if I should be happy or sorry for you right now,” Brad said, shaking his head.
“Fuck you, Colbert,” Steve laughed. “I have a beautiful woman and soon I will have a beautiful son. I’m not exactly missing my old ways.”
“I guess when you’re getting old...”
“Shut up, you’re older than me.”
“I still could kick your ass, though.”
“You probably would, my knee isn’t what it used to be. But it’s not a challenge to kick a cripple’s ass, so don’t be so happy about yourself.”
“Bad?” Brad asked, simply enough to give Steve a chance of changing the topic easily.
“Depends.” Steve shrugged. “They didn’t cut anything out and I can walk. That’s the important part.”
“It is,” Brad agreed. They both had friends who weren’t so lucky. “And you still can kick your recruits’ asses, I imagine.”
“Don’t remind me. I can’t believe we were so fucking green when we started.”
Brad shrugged. They were. They just didn’t really remember how it was back then, their bodies incapable of doing what was so ingrained in them now.
“Tell me what’s going on with you, Colbert. When did you come back?”
“Three weeks ago. It was fine, except there was no ocean, their command is worse than ours and it was either raining all the time in England or cold as fuck in Afghanistan.”
“In other words, it was great,” Steve said with a small crocked smile.
“What now, then?”
“My well-earned vacation. I still have a few weeks left before reporting back at Pendleton. After that, we’ll see.”
“We could use you here, you know.”
Brad shook his head.
“Not my time yet.”
“Figured,” Steve nodded. “Just thought I’d bring it to the table, if you’re considering options. And it’s an open invitation, so let me know when that time comes.”
There was a few minutes of easy silence while they both turned their attention to a game playing on the tv above the bar, but Steve turned to him again during the break.
“What are you doing here then, apart from being blessed by my company?”
“I’m on a road trip. Took my bike for a ride and here I am. This is a stop on the way.”
“Nowhere special. I was thinking of reaching the East Coast and going back.”
“Do you have a place to stay? You can have our guest room, if you want.”
For a second or two, Brad considered it. Staying at Nate’s now was doing more bad than good, bringing more questions than answers he came looking for.
“Thanks, but I’m staying with a friend already,” he said in the end and added “Nate Fick, I was with him in Iraq.”
“Fick? I know him. He works at Wringley’s now, right?”
The world was small, a Marine’s world even smaller. That was why he even mentioned Nate’s name, it wasn’t unusual for guys to know each other or of each other by a grapevine of gossip and stories. Brad was still surprised that it was a recovery center Steve knew Nate from. He didn’t ask, though. Everyone was coping in their own ways, but not many of them wanted to share with the class when those ways involved therapy.
“Good guy,” Steve commented.
“Yeah, he is.” Couldn’t argue with that one.
Nate’s legs were spread open, an invitation Brad never was able to resist. He moved his hips so their dicks would touch, eliciting a breathy moan from Nate.
“Fuck,” he whispered. “Brad.”
“Yeah,” he said, his mouth tracing the line of Nate’s neck to the collarbone, when his teeth joined his tongue in exploring the freckled skin.
Nate had one hand at the nape of Brad’s neck, in turns gripping it hard and petting lightly. The other one was on his ass, bringing Brad closer to him.
“I need you to fuck me right now,” Nate’s words were breathed out on his cheek, the air warmer still, even when it was already so hot their bodies were sweaty and flushed all over.
“Anything,” Brad answered him, one hand already looking for lube and a condom. Nate closed his eyes and tilted his head back, his throat exposed and right there, for the taking. Brad’s lips couldn’t resist and latched on to that expanse of skin, his tongue tracing the pulsing underneath it.
Brad’s finger circled Nate’s hole before slowly slipping in and Brad bit his lips to stop the moan from escaping. There was something, Brad didn’t know what, about having his fingers inside someone else, something that spoke to the lizard part of his brain. It wasn’t better than his dick, not like that. But it was the closest thing to that feeling of having someone, that edge of surpassing someone’s control. Brad could barely take a breath at the thought of fisting Nate one day.
He was moving his fingers in Nate now, in and out, and grinding his dick down to meet Nate’s. Nate’s moans went from breathless to loud and his fingers were leaving their marks on Brad’s skin, demanding more and closer and faster without saying anything but Brad and fuck.
There was a surprisingly light kiss left on Brad’s jaw and he leaned in instinctively for a second, before moving away to put a condom on.
The feeling of Nate’s hand gripping his hip and the look of him, laying under Brad, open and wanting, was the last image Brad saw before he opened his eyes to the darkness of Nate’s guest room. It was also the image that Brad was still thinking about when he took a hold of his dick and jacked himself off until he came.
It took a couple of minutes for him to move to clean himself up. After that, he lied on his side, staring at the door. He imagined going to Nate’s bedroom and recreating this half dream, half memory.
For an hour he didn’t move, his breathing in control and his eyes not leaving the door.
Apparently he was a mix of a Recon Marine and a sixteen-year-old with a... a hard-on for his ex. Fantastic.
The door wasn’t closed. If they wanted privacy, they would make sure the door was closed.
Okay, fine, Brad was eavesdropping. He looked around, but there was no one else there. An empty corridor, wide and bright from the light coming from the big windows, yellow walls making it look even more... calm and positive. Brad didn’t even feel like it was trying too hard. That counted for a lot, he supposed.
“Just say whatever comes to your mind,” Nate’s voice was calm and strong, both similar and different than his commanding voice. “If someone else agrees or has or had the same experience and wants to let us know, please just snap your fingers, okay? It can be whatever you want, big or small, as long as it starts with ‘every’.”
Brad shook his head and wanted to step back, but Nate continued.
“I can start,” he said and Brad couldn’t make himself move. “Every time I run there’s a moment when I forget that I’m back. I forget that it’s not a part of a training or a mission. It can be anything, a smell that reminds me of a gun, a woman that looks like one I’ve seen in Iraq, anything. It’s usually just a moment, but I forget.”
Brad heard a snap, then the second one.
“I forget it sometimes when I’m driving,” someone said. “The road changes for a moment and there’s no asphalt, just ruins and blind windows.”
The wall behind Brad’s back was warm, too warm, his t-shirt clung to his back and he felt glued to it.
“Every time I wake up from a nightmare, my boyfriend asks me what I was dreaming about,” a woman spoke up next. “I tell him it’s war stuff, but I’m afraid one time I will tell him everything.”
“Every window is a window I may jump out of,” a muffled male voice was next. There was a snap even before the guy finished speaking. “It was terrifying for my wife when I told her, but it calms me down. The thought just... comes to my mind and it relaxes me.”
Two more snaps.
“Every kid I see looks similar to a kid I’ve seen in Iraq.”
Two snaps. The third one, Brad’s, sounded awfully loud in the empty corridor.
“Okay, I guess I’ve shown you everything” Nate said when they went back to the entry hall of Wringley’s. “It’s really better to see it in action, during sessions and meetings and things like that. But it’s obviously impossible to show it without you being here for help.”
“I thought you might say that,” Nate smiled a little. “If you ever change your mind, there are open sessions once a month for new people or people thinking about joining us. And I’m not running them, if that’s what would stop you.”
“It’s a rule to not treat the people we know anyway,” Nate continued. “I knew Will - he’s the guy running this place - from the OCS. And he was the one who told me to come here when I needed it, but he didn’t treat me.”
“Are you trying to get me to sign up?” Brad asked, amused. “Therapy isn’t for me. Everyone has their methods and that’s perfectly fine. Some have therapy...”
“And you have your bike,” Nate finished for him with a smile.
“And I have my bike,” he agreed, smiling back. “It works.”
“I’m not telling you to do anything. I’m just used to presenting Wringley’s as an option for dealing with what a person can’t or won’t deal on their own.”
“You work here, you have to advertise it to people.”
“You caught me. I’m doing this for money,” Nate said with a straight face.
“Well, it worked for me, so I’m kind of double biased now.”
There it was, the opening he was looking for since he arrived. It wasn’t the best place for it, but you make do with what you’re given.
“Speaking of...” he started and looked at Nate with his eyebrows raised.
“Ah,” Nate said, shaking his head. “The Conversation is due.”
“We don’t have to, if you don’t want to.” It was obvious, but Brad felt it needed to be said anyway.
“I know. But you want to know and I can tell you. It’s not something I’d shout from the roof, but I’m not ashamed of it either,” Nate explained, before adding quietly: “Anymore.”
Brad didn’t say there was nothing to be ashamed for. It was one thing to think so in general or towards your friends, it was another to let yourself believe that when it happened to you.
“Maybe here isn’t the best place for it, though,” he said instead, looking around. “I’m not a therapist after all.” He looked Nate in the eyes again. “I ask as a friend.”
“And I will tell you as a friend,” Nate nodded not looking away from Brad. “But let’s go home first. We will order pizza and talk.”
Brad nodded. He remembered other nights with pizza and beer. And sex. He remembered them being simple, easy. Knowing what he did now, he wondered what else he missed, what Nate was really offering him then. What he was inviting him to.
He shook his head. Never-mind now. Now it was an evening with a friend.
The first time Brad realized he really, really wanted to fuck Nate was when he saw him in the morning after a paddle party held at Nate’s house. Most of the guys went back to the base, but a couple of them stayed over, sleeping now on every horizontal space available.
Brad left the bathroom and came in to the kitchen, only to be greeted by Nate inhaling his coffee, leaning against the counter, dressed in fucking sweatpants and a red t-shirt with a name of some band Brad never heard of.
“Turning into a pussy civilian so soon?” he asked, raising his eyebrows.
His fucking libido was still drunk, apparently, because it decided that Nate Fick was hot beyond any reason. Brad had seen Nate in all states of dress and a state of being half-dressed, but he never had a reaction like this one. When Nate was wearing sweatpants.
He wanted to fuck his commanding officer. Well, maybe blow him first, push him against that counter and make him lose it, but he wanted to fuck him, too.
Brad didn’t have time to wonder then if it was some kind of a switch that went on after Nate stopped officially being his superior, because Gunny came in to the kitchen with bleary eyes and a prayer for coffee on his lips.
But the thought was there from then on.
After that Brad saw Nate in sweatpants more than once and every time he did, he remembered that morning, the first moment of conscious want.
Just like right now.
They came back to Nate’s place, ordered pizza and Nate left him to go take a shower. Now he was sitting next to him in his stupid sweatpants and his Marines t-shirt (not Harvard, Brad noticed, and wondered if it was important), and Brad couldn’t help remembering.
But he was also very good at repressing things he didn’t want to think about.
They both ate about half of their respectful pizzas before Nate started talking.
“It wasn’t because of the war,” he said suddenly. “Well, okay, it was, in the end, but it wasn’t Iraq that triggered PTSD.”
Brad didn’t expect that. When the guys told him, he assumed it just caught up to Nate later. It wasn’t unusual to have a delayed response.
“Among the platoon only Mike knows the details and I doubt he told the guys more than he thought was necessary or wise.” Nate paused for a moment. “It’s not like this is a terrible secret, it’s just the way it is. Mike knows and everyone else knows from Mike, so it was whatever he told them it was.”
“From what I gathered, he didn’t tell them much. PTSD got you and you had to leave school.”
There was a flicker of hurt in Nate’s eyes, visible to Brad only because he wasn’t taking his eyes off Nate’s face.
“Well, that’s the truth. But it’s not the version you came here for.”
Brad wasn’t even sure what he came here for anymore, but it didn’t matter right now. He did want to know the whole story. He nodded.
“After,” Nate waved a hand between them, “the last time we saw each other, I decided I need to do something... outside of my space. I didn’t want to stay at home until it was time to leave for college. I would go crazy. And my brother decided he missed me, so I absolutely had to come spend some time with him in Santa Cruz when he was done with his finals.” There was an amused smile on Nate’s face that reminded Brad of a few times when he caught Nate smiling about something Ray said before he turned away.
Brad vaguely remembered Nate mentioning his younger brother in the past, but nothing more than “One time me and my brother” or “My brother always says”.
“And everything was fine, if a little crazy. He and his friends were trying to get me to surf.”
“I would pay to see that.”
“I would give you a show for free,” Nate said and Brad shoved a piece of pizza in his mouth to not make a sound, “but I’m never going to try surfing. I leave that for crazy people,” he grinned at Brad.
“You were in the Marine Corps,” Brad said to that, raising his eyebrows. “You are perfectly crazy.”
They just sat for a few minutes, eating in companionable silence. Then Nate put his empty pizza box on the coffee table and his face changed, making him look his age. It was something that Brad witnessed only a few times in Iraq.
“We were coming back from the bar one night, just him and me, because his friends decided to stay and drink themselves under the table. We were talking shit. I was giving him a hard time about a girl he liked and he was going on and on about how he would get me laid before I leave. Suddenly, there are these three guys and they shove us into an alley.” Nate’s fingers were drawing invisible lines up and down the cushion, his eyes trailing the movement. “I can’t believe I didn’t see that coming.”
Brad put down his bottle and turned so he sat facing Nate. There was no point of telling him he shouldn’t beat himself up.
“Turns out my brother knows them,” Nate continued. “Somehow he got himself involved with guys selling drugs.” He shook his head like he still couldn’t believe that. “He apparently pissed them off when he didn’t give them the money he owed them.”
“Was he taking or dealing?” Brad asked quietly.
“A little bit of both. ‘Just a little for extra fun’, as he put it later. But the fun part ends quite fast that night when one of the guys pulls out a gun and puts it to his head.”
Nate put his legs up against his chest and was staring at the blank tv screen. Brad couldn’t take his eyes away from him.
“And all that I can think of, over and over again, is ‘I don’t have my gun, I don’t have my gun’,” Nate’s voice was speeding up and then it slowed down again. “Like everything would be alright if I just had my gun on me. Like it wasn’t totally fucked up from the start. I wanted to blow the guy’s head off for even pointing the gun at my brother.”
There was a silence Brad didn’t know what to do with. He was okay with staying silent most of the time, preferred it, really, but silence like that left him looking for something to say. He thought that maybe Nate wanted him to ask.
“What happened after?”
“I disarmed the guy and knocked out two of them before the third one pulled out his own gun. I dealt with him too, but not before he shot at my brother.” Nate looked down at his hands. “He hit him in the leg. It healed easily, though. Mark could run less than two months after.”
“Were you hurt?”
Nate shook his head.
“No. I was fine. Well, except finding out my brother was a dealer. And that he got shot,” he said with a dry, forced smile.
Brad tried to imagine what that could be like, but there was no way either of his sisters (a history teacher and an engineer) would ever be involved with drugs. He used up all the rebellion and craziness in their family.
“Where is he now?”
“Back in school,” Nate said quietly. “After he got shot, he remembered he’s got a brain and got himself cleaned up. He was never addicted, he was just... ‘taking the whole college experience a little too far’,” he said with air quotes. “ And he felt really bad about me getting dragged into this, especially when it became obvious that was what triggered my thing.”
That was the first time Brad heard Nate referred to it as anything different than what it was. Now it was his thing.
“Few weeks after that, back home again, I had at least half of the symptoms from the list. I couldn’t sleep, I had nightmares, flashbacks, my emotions were all over the place. It continued like that through whole summer, but I tried to go to college anyway. I had to drop out after a few weeks, though.”
Nate was completely drained from any emotion at this point. Just straight facts, A happened, B happened, so in the end C happened. Forget the fact that C was actually what broke his big fucking dream.
“I’m sorry,” Brad said quietly and those weren’t just empty words. Nate being forced to drop out from Harvard was way worse than him being involved in a fight with guns present.
Nate nodded in acknowledgement, like he understood. He probably did.
“That’s how I ended up at Wringley’s. I met Will and he said I should come here and see if it would work for me. I needed to get away from home anyway, so it seemed like a good idea. And it was. I got better and after that I just never left. I started working here first as an advisor and something like a mentor for some of the patients. Later I started to do more and more and here I am.”
What about going back to school? Brad thought, but he didn’t ask.
“Are you good here?” he chose instead.
“Yes,” Nate said with conviction, and Brad believed him. Nate was a fixer and he liked challenges. It seemed like a good fit. “I feel useful here and like we actually do make a difference.”
That last thing was something the Marine Corps wasn’t able to give him and that was maybe the main reason he decided to leave.
Not great, but it looked like it had a chance to become that, too. In time.
Brad missed surfing. He missed the ocean, too, that open space that looked like it would never end, and that feeling of solitude he got when he swam far away from the shore on his board. Just him and the water, the same as just him and his bike on the road.
For some time after Iraq he had to force himself to go out on the beach. There was nothing easy and carefree about going surfing then and surfing was an easy and carefree part of him for as long as he could remember. It was a hard few months.
But he got over that and before his trip to England he was once again spending hours on the board. Which was the exact same thing he promised himself when he got back to California. Weeks of surfing, just him and the ocean.
Then he found out about Nate, hopped on his bike and didn’t look back.
And now he was still in Quantico, Virginia, sleeping in a guest room of his former ex-... something. His mission, even if not entirely planned, had been to find out what happened to Nate and he had accomplished that. Now he could go anywhere, further east or back home, fuck, he could drive to fucking Mexico, if he wanted to. But the thing was, he didn’t really want to go anywhere. He didn’t have a plan for where to go next, so for now, he stayed where he was.
He enjoyed the company, that’s for sure. Nate was a busy man and most of the daytime he spent at work, while Brad was driving around, going to the gym or not getting out of bed for any trips farther than to the kitchen. But they spent most evenings together, watching tv and drinking beer and generally just relaxing. It was starting to gnaw something at the back of Brad’s head, the notion that it was too difficult to be that easy, but Brad ignored it and let himself drift a little.
“When I was a teenager and trying to figure out what to do with my life, I watched this movie and decided to become a lawyer,” Nate said one night, a few minutes after Jack Nicholson told Tom Cruise he couldn’t handle the truth. “Didn’t last long.”
“Did it help you decide you’re gay, too?” Brad asked, amused.
“Fuck you,” he said, kicking him lightly. Brad still couldn’t believe he was going around the house in warm socks in bright colors. Today’s choice was red. “Top Gun helped, though,” Nate added, trying not to laugh.
Brad looked at him incredulously.
“Please tell me you’re kidding.”
“Hey, Tom Cruise was hot.”
“I was a teenager.”
“It’s Tom Cruise, you have no excuse.”
“And you’re starting to talk in rhymes.” A pause. “Who was your teenage crush then?”
“Every woman, or girl, with big breasts and killer smile. I was easy.” He didn’t look at a guy and found himself wanting him until the last year of military school, when Bryan Tardy couldn’t take his eyes of Brad’s fresh tattoo. Brad’s first erotic experience with a guy was said guy brushing his fingers on his back, tracing the lines of the design in the locker room after a shower.
Nate was looking at him, giving his beer bottle a blowjob in the meantime. Brad could feel his body temperature going up. The fucker wasn’t even doing it on purpose. Not his fault his lips looked like they starred in every porn movie worth watching.
“What?” Brad asked, looking from Nate’s lips to his eyes. Nate’s nostrils flared and Brad knew he was busted.
“Nothing,” Nate said, turning away.
Saturday morning, Brad was browsing on his laptop to the noise that Nate made in the kitchen. Brad didn’t remember him being so loud in the past (not including sex, because then it was most welcomed). Now it seemed like Nate was making sure everyone in the close vicinity knew where he was at any given time when he was moving around.
Like right now.
“Come in,” he said, shaking his head, when he heard knocking.
“Hey, if you want to go play, we need to leave in half an hour.”
“I’ll be ready,” he nodded. Apparently Nate and the rest of Wringley’s staff liked to meet every three or four weeks to relax a little and play basketball. It was open to family and friends, and Nate invited him along. Maybe he noticed Brad’s restlessness.
Brad expected a dozen people, maybe a couple more. But when they arrived, it turned out that the game was much more popular than he thought. There were over thirty people around the court. Fortunately not all of them came to play.
“Some people bring kids,” Nate said, tilting his head in the direction of a woman with three little girls sitting on the bleachers. Brad saw Ben and Meg at the top and waved back when they noticed them, too. “Wives, husbands, friends, whoever wants to come. It’s not always this big, but we’ve had worse. One time we had to make a tournament out of it, because there were over twenty people willing to play.”
He was smiling, stretching and looking around. There were new freckles on his face and the weather looked like it was going to give him a few more before the day was over.
And Brad was probably staring. He turned away and noticed the tallest guy he had ever seen coming their way.
“B.J.!” came from behind him. Nate sounded like seeing this guy here on old basketball court was the greatest fucking thing to ever happen to him.
“Nate, you are a sight for sore eyes,” the tallest guy ever said, before he hugged Nate, almost lifting him up.
Brad was not amused.
“Don’t pretend you miss this place,” Nate laughed, pulling away. He gave the guy the once-over. “California treats you well, I see.”
“It’s not the weather I miss, that’s for sure,” the guy said, still smiling. “You, on the other hand...” he paused for an effect and looked at Brad like he just remembered Brad was there. “You make me forget my manners.” He extended his hand to Brad. “Hi, I’m B.J.”
“Brad Colbert,” he said and didn’t turn the handshake into a pissing contest. A win.
“B.J. was my mentor when I first got here,” Nate explained.
“And later he took my job as a thank you.”
“Liar. You almost forced me.”
B.J. opened his eyes in exaggerated shock.
“Baby, I would never.”
Brad was torn between amusement and irritation, but Nate. Nate laughed so hard he threw his head back and his whole upper body shook.
This was what they all missed out on in Iraq. Nate being open like that. Even after, there were only two times Brad had seen him laugh like that. The first time, at the paddle party, Ray and Poke were bickering like the old pussies they were and Nate lost it. That shut them up for a moment and then they just grinned at Nate like they had accomplished something and gotten the prize. The second time was in Brad’s bed a few months later. He didn’t remember now what he said to make Nate laugh so hard, but he understood then how Ray and Poke might have felt.
Now he could see that feeling on B.J.’s face.
“Guys,” Monica shouted. She was a vice-president of Wringley’s and she spoke with the confidence of a person who knew how to make people do what she wanted. “Come on, let’s play.”
“We’re coming,” Nate shouted back and turned to B.J. “We’ll talk later, okay? If not, I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Find me when you’re done.”
“You’re not playing?” Brad asked when Nate turned to go.
B.J. patted his left leg.
“Not my kind of fun anymore. I’m a referee slash head cheerleader, though.”
Brad nodded and went after Nate.
“Good luck, boys,” B.J. said from behind him. “Kick their asses.”
They were cooling off after the game, shooting shit with members of the opposite team, when Ben and Meg appeared near their bench.
“Hi, guys,” Nate said, smiling. “Did you enjoy the game?”
Ben shrugged, looking down to the ground. Meg let out a small sigh, but when she looked at them she grinned enthusiastically.
“You were great! It was a well-deserved win.”
“Of course it was,” Nate stated, reaching out to put a hand on Ben’s shoulder, but Ben moved away. Nate let the arm drop, acting like nothing happened.
“Okay, I have to go,” Meg said, handing Nate the Spider Man backpack. “I will pick him up around nine tomorrow. Thanks again for doing this.”
“It’s nothing. We will have a movie marathon and eat unhealthy. You know, the usual.”
“Uncle Nate’s special, I guess,” she smiled before turning to Ben. “Be good, buddy.”
She hugged them all, not minding the sweat or having to stand on her toes to even try to reach Nate’s and Brad’s collarbones.
When she left, Nate put his hand on the back of Ben’s neck and steered him in the direction of the parking lot.
“Come on, grumpy,” he said quietly. There was no snark or irritation in his voice, just acceptance. “The popcorn isn’t going to eat itself.”
“Sweet popcorn?” Ben looked up from admiring his green sneakers.
“Have I ever let you down when it comes to the food? Never. Of course I have sweet popcorn.”
Brad thought he was going to throw up, if forced to eat a monstrosity like that. He would take any of the MREs over it any day.
Nate patted him on the back.
“Don’t worry,” he whispered, when Ben was getting into the car. “I have other kinds, too.”
“That’s why you’re the best, sir,” Brad said with a smile and got in. Nate stood outside for a few seconds longer before following.
The excitement over sweet popcorn didn’t last very long. During the ride home Ben was silent and staring outside the window and when they got home, he went straight to the guest room, saying that he wasn’t hungry.
“Well, I guess the fight over the guest room bed is over before it could begin.”
“I can take...”
“Shut up, you.” Brad rolled his eyes. “I was joking.” To avoid you looking like that.
“Fine by me,” Nate said, rising his eyebrows. “Don’t come crying when you pull something.”
“I’ve slept in worse conditions, as you may know.”
“I might have heard,” Nate quipped. They smiled at each other.
“Okay, I need a shower,” Brad said after a moment and Nate nodded as if he made a decision.
“And I need to talk with Ben.” He looked at the guest room door and back at Brad. “If I’m not out of there in half an hour or so...”
“Plan a rescue mission?”
“... feel free to eat without us.”
It took forty seven minutes for Nate to come in to the living room and fall on the couch.
“Suddenly remembering why you don’t have kids?” Brad tried for a joke. He got a small smile for his efforts.
“He misses his dad,” Nate said, looking at the coffee table. “Rick is in Afghanistan again and he’s not coming back for at least another four months. Try to explain that to a kid.” He shrugged. “He loves that his dad is a hero soldier, but he wants him to be a hero soldier whom he can watch play basketball and go home with later.”
Brad nodded. They both had friends who were going through hell every time they had to leave their kids behind. Some of them never really got them back, if the wife or girlfriend decided she had enough.
“I would probably want the same thing if I were him,” Brad said, drinking his beer. Since he got over that thing with Jess, he was actually relieved he didn’t have a wife and kids. They would all probably start to resent him really fast.
“Yeah,” Nate said and looked up at him. “I guess it’s me and you for that popcorn.”
“As long as it’s not the sweet one. Or you’re on your own.”
On Tuesday evening Nate came home two hours later than usual. Brad was checking his RSS feed, mindless chatter on TV keeping him company, when the door opened and he looked up to see Nate almost dragging his feet through the entrance. When he noticed Brad, he straightened up a little, but he still looked exhausted.
Brad was instantly reminded of Nate in Iraq, keeping it together for his men, because he had no other choice. He wondered once what would happen if Nate lost it in Iraq; it was not a train of thoughts he wanted to repeat any time soon. Still, there were times in the theater when Brad had seen how tired and quietly furious and helpless Nate was, just like the rest of them.
Right now Nate was in his own house and there was no need to put a mask of any kind. No need to ‘be there’ for anybody or ‘be ready’ for anything.
“Come here and sit down,” Brad said, getting up. “I’ll get you something to eat,” he added, and went to the kitchen without giving Nate a chance to protest.
He had made dinner earlier, so he just had to heat it up. He grabbed a bottle of water from the fridge and went back to the living room. Nate was slouching on the couch with his head propped on his hand and his eyes closed. He opened them when he heard Brad coming closer and looked at Brad like he was trying to figure out what he was doing.
“Dinner time,” Brad said, handing him his plate with chicken, vegetables and rice. “Unless you’d rather just go to sleep right now.”
“Thanks.” Nate lifted up a little, so he could eat. “I’m hungry as hell and too tired to sleep just yet.”
“Hard day?” Brad asked, giving Nate the opening. He closed the lid of his laptop, where he was reading an article about the development of a new unmanned aircraft. The skin on the back of his neck itched with the fact that he just spent another day doing nothing, when everyone around him was going on with their lives.
Nate nodded, swallowing his food.
“We’ve had a couple of new people, it’s usually hard. They want to get help and don’t want to be here at the same time,” he explained. “And they’re pushing us a lot harder than those who are with us for a while.”
“Testing you.” Brad knew this. Every Marine, every soldier, tested anyone who was in charge of them, or had a power over them, to see what he, or she, was made of. If he or she could be trusted.
“Exactly. And it’s even worse than usual when it’s someone who doesn’t trust anybody anymore.”
“You are a masochist,” Brad stated and Nate chuckled.
“Every Marine is, I suppose.”
“There’s that,” he admitted. But Nate could do anything he wanted after leaving the Corps and he had chosen this. Maybe it wasn’t his first choice, maybe he got here because he had to, but it was still his decision to stay.
Nate finished eating and he put the plate on the coffee table. He turned so he had an armrest behind him and they were sitting face to face on both sides of the couch. Nate looked at Brad’s short hair and threaded his fingers through his own, like he was checking out the difference.
Do you miss it? Brad wanted to ask, but it wasn’t something he felt he could ever say out loud.
Apparently he didn’t have to.
“I don’t miss it,” Nate said suddenly. His fingers were still playing with the hair at the back of his neck and he was looking straight at Brad. “I don’t regret joining up, and I hope I never will, but I don’t miss it.”
Brad didn’t really know what to say to that, so he nodded and looked down on his legs.
“I miss the guys, though,” Nate added, his voice a little more energetic. “Did they throw you a welcoming party?”
“Ray decided it was necessary to ‘celebrate our bond’. I just went for free booze.”
When it came to Ray, people usually reacted with either worry, irritation or amusement. Nate almost always went with the last option.
“I’ve heard he proposed to Miriam?” he said, smiling. “I met her last year at Stafford’s wedding. She seemed… capable of handling him.”
“That would be a first.”
“You managed to do just fine in the past, as I recall,” Nate pointed out.
“I threatened to shoot him on daily basis,” Brad admitted. “That’s different.”
“Let’s hope,” Nate laughed and the lines on his face shifted from worry and exhaustion to amusement.
Brad wanted to kiss him so badly. Put his thumbs on the corners of Nate’s eyes to touch the wrinkled skin.
Nate had one leg folded under him, the other stretched to rest on the floor. Brad didn’t give him time to change when he came back home, so he was still in his dress pants and a blue shirt with rolled up sleeves. Brad was sitting there in jeans and black t-shirt that had seen better days or years and couldn’t take his eyes off Nate now.
They just sat there for a few seconds, looking at each other and trying to silently decide on the next move, whatever it was.
In the end, it was Brad who moved his arm resting on the back of the couch and turned his hand palm up in an invitation. Nate looked at it for a long moment, until he hesitantly reached out to slide his fingers between Brad’s.
Brad pulled and Nate went, moving across the couch. He rested on one knee between Brad’s legs and put his hand on the armrest, crowding him. Brad tilted his head back a little, his free hand reaching to Nate’s side.
Nate ran his tongue over his lips and Brad didn’t even finish a thought that he wanted that too, before Nate kissed him. There was a split second when they just stayed like that, unmoving, but Brad moaned and opened his mouth, his tongue licking Nate’s taste from his lips. He put both hands on Nate’s neck to make sure he was where Brad wanted him to be. They shifted to get more comfortable, Nate straddling his hips without stopping the kiss for more than taking a breath. And there was no way Brad could let go now, before he would have Nate properly and fully again, before he would lick and bite across his chest and down, down the smooth skin of Nate’s abdomen to the dick he longed to feel on his tongue again. Before he could sink his teeth in Nate’s thigh and his dick in Nate’s hole, and before he could see Nate’s face when he came.
There was no way Brad could let go now, except if Nate said no.
But Nate was nipping on Brad’s neck and his hands were mapping the AO on Brad’s stomach and chest, so they were both probably on the same page now.
Impatient and afraid of breaking the mood, Brad didn’t mind doing it (anything, everything) on the couch, but after a couple more minutes Nate pulled away, breathing a little faster and rolled his hips down, fuck, one more time before getting up.
Brad was one step behind him, hands twitching to reach out and touch again, but that would only slow them down on the way to the bedroom and Brad was already picturing Nate spread and naked on the bed. So he fisted the hem of his own t-shirt and started stripping in the hall.
Time between that point and having Nate where he wanted him, under him and naked, and with his head thrown back and a moan on his lips, seemed to go on forever, but the moment was there now and Brad breathed in deeply, amazed. His nose led the way for his lips on Nate’s neck and Brad was inhaling the scent and leaving his own marks, while Nate’s hands were running up and down Brad’s back, and gripping his ass to pull him closer.
“Fuck.” All the previous plans vanished, leaving only the need to be inside of Nate as soon as possible. “Lube.”
And a moment later Brad had to bite his lips to stop himself from coming, when his slicked finger entered Nate, tight and hot and finally. He pushed in the second one just a moment later and could feel Nate’s muscles tense, then relax.
“Brad,” Nate’s voice was soft and quiet. He reached up to run his fingers through Brad’s hair and pulled him in for a kiss, messy and uncoordinated, because they were both too far gone.
He lifted himself on his forearms to look at Nate when he started to push in, the head of his dick going deeper and deeper. Nate’s eyes were half-closed, but he was looking at Brad too, alternating between his eyes and lips. He opened his mouth as if to say something, but he changed his mind and just lifted his hips, hurrying Brad.
There was a moment of stillness, there and gone, before their movements became faster and faster. Nate’s nails were scratching Brad’s back and the nape of his neck and Brad reached down to pull Nate’s thigh higher. Their skin was slick with sweat and Nate was leaking pre-come on Brad’s stomach and they were making a mess of each other in more ways than one.
Feeling his orgasm coming, Brad clasped his fingers around Nate’s dick and started jacking him off fast and hard.
Nate’s eyes opened wide when he came and Brad didn’t even try to look away when he followed.
Brad felt loose and sated, relaxed in a way he hadn’t felt for weeks. He was warm, there was a nice mattress under him and he had his arm thrown over someone he had felt comfortable sleeping next to. He was half-awake and glad to stay that way as long as possible, but it wasn’t meant to be.
It took him a few seconds to remember where he was and what happened last night, but when he did, he tensed and went on high alert while still keeping his eyes closed. The sound of slow, regular breathing indicated that Nate was probably still asleep. Still there and still asleep. Not bad. Brad relaxed a little and opened his eyes.
Nate was lying close, but not touching The only point of contact was Brad’s arm thrown over Nate’s side. They were facing each other and Brad was able to look closely now, compare all the changes and similarities to the Nate he remembered, but who was mostly replaced by this new version in his mind now.
He got restless after a few minutes. Not something he experienced often, after all he could stay put for hours, but now it was a nagging feeling he had to leave, an instinctual response to the challenge that was lying before him.
He didn’t even remove his arm properly before Nate’s eyelashes fluttered and he blinked three times before looking Brad in the eyes. He stared for a moment, not really awake, before closing his eyes again and shifting closer to Brad, humming quietly. He put his hand on Brad’s chest and pushed his foot between Brad’s calves, as if keeping him there, and went back to sleep again.
That was... unexpected.
Brad tried to relax again, concentrating on every muscles group one after another. He was staring at the wall and counting his breaths and somehow between one and the next, he drifted to sleep again.
When he opened his eyes the next time, Nate was staring at him. Brad turned his head to the side and looked back. The hand still on his chest pushed down for a moment before relaxing.
“So, that happened,” Nate said and Brad wanted to laugh, he could feel it inside of him before he pushed it down. He smirked, though. Nate rolled his eyes in reply.
It was almost easy.
“We should talk about this.”
And then it wasn’t, of course.
“I’ll do better at this after I have coffee,” he said. Not to mention he didn’t like talking about anything serious in bed, without his clothes on. But he didn’t move until Nate nodded and rolled to get up. He stood with his back to the window and looked mostly relaxed. And fully naked. Brad’s eyes zero-ed in on his dick for a second and then three more on the hickey he left on Nate’s thigh. He turned away and got up himself.
“Meet you in the kitchen in a few?” he asked, grabbing his boxers and looking up to see Nate’s nod.
After a quick visit to the bathroom, he went to the kitchen, where Nate was putting the milk back in the fridge. The silence was a little suffocating for Brad and he was surprised how not-nervous Nate looked. Wasn’t he supposed to be the one to freak out about this? After all, he got hurt last time around.
Yeah, that thought didn’t help Brad in the least.
“Listen, Brad,” Nate started, leaning against the counter and facing him. “I just want to know what do you think, what do you want with this, with me. Is it an one-time thing, revisiting old times to put it behind you, or is it something else?”
He was circling his mug in both hands, looking between them and Brad’s face. Maybe he wasn’t as calm about this as Brad had thought.
“I didn’t come here because of this,” Brad started, but it didn’t feel right. “Not because of wanting to revisit your bed, that is.” He made himself relax the hand gripping the counter tightly. “And it wasn’t like I didn’t want you, either, it was just... not my objective.”
“Good,” Nate said, shifting a little. “Okay. But it happened. We both wanted it to happen last night. What I’m asking is, what do you want now?”
I want us to stop talking and go back to bed. There are so many things that I want to do to you, you have no idea. He could say it and it would be honest, but it wouldn’t be what Nate wanted. And most probably wouldn’t give him what he wanted either. Whatever that was.
“I don’t want this to be an one-time thing,” he settled with in the end.
“Good,” Nate said again, looking up at him with a little smile. “I don’t want this to be an one-time thing either.”
“Okay,” Brad nodded and put his empty mug on the kitchen table behind him.
“Wait,” Nate raised his hand to stop him from coming closer. “We both want to continue this and that’s great. But I need to know what’s next. I...” he flushed, but kept his eyes somewhere on Brad’s collarbone and continued. “I didn’t ask then. I should have and I didn’t, and I regretted it later.”
“About...” Brad started, but Nate didn’t let him finish.
“We wanted different things. It’s nobody’s fault. The things is, we made a mistake not talking about it then and I don’t want a repeat of that.”
“If you pushed me then, it would have ended after the first time,” Brad said before he could stop himself.
“So I shouldn’t regret it, you mean?” Nate asked with a self-deprecating smile.
“I’d prefer not to be your regret,” Brad said, suddenly wishing to be as far away from here as possible. “But I can’t stop you from feeling that way, can I?”.
Nate’s eyebrows furrowed.
“Wait. You got me wrong. I didn’t say I regret everything with you. I meant I regretted not talking to you about this.” Nate crossed his arms on his chest. “If I regretted ever sleeping with you, I wouldn’t have done it again last night.”
“Okay,” Brad said, leaning back against the kitchen table. His back was starting to hurt from the tension in his muscles, but he couldn’t get himself to relax.
“Okay. But coming back to the whole point of us suffering through this conversation,” Nate threw him a crooked smile, “I want to know where we stand with this. Where you stand with this,” he corrected himself.
“And what about where you stand?” Brad asked. “It’s not just about me, you know.”
Nate shifted as if he wanted to come closer, but in the end he stayed where he was.
“At the risk of scaring you to death,” he started and paused. “Okay, fuck it, here it is: I want you as long as I can have you. Today, this weekend, the next week, until you leave, after. So I need to know what you want, so I can,” he shrugged, “adjust.”
It would be probably much easier to do, if he had any idea of what he wanted. Nate, yes. That was a no-brainer. But trying to come up with a plan, something more or less permanent or at least not completely impulsive and stupid... Well. The only sure thing he saw ahead of him was the date he had to report back to Pendleton, which was still seventeen days from now. What happened before or after that wasn’t even remotely clear.
It was a thought he had been ignoring for some time now and being here, with Nate, definitely helped with mental distractions. But now when the realization struck, although maybe not earth-shattering, it was still difficult to accept.
“Brad,” Nate’s voice came through the white noise in his head. “Brad, come on, breathe in, breathe out.”
Years of training kicked in and his body responded to the command before his conscious mind had a chance to catch up.
It was a long two minutes, but Brad was back on-line. He found himself sitting on the nearest chair and breathing harshly. He accepted the bottle of water from Nate.
“Sorry,” Brad said, between one small swallow and another.
“Nothing to be sorry about,” Nate assured him, resting his hand on Brad’s arm for a moment. Brad’s hair stood up. “Nothing I haven’t seen or done myself,” he added.
Not very reassuring, giving Nate’s line of work and personal history, but Brad nodded.
“I will make us breakfast,” Nate said and turned to the fridge. “Scrambled eggs okay?”
Brad nodded again before realizing Nate couldn’t see him.
“Yes,” he said, rubbing his forehead. He was sweating as if he went on high speed for hours.
Nate worked in silence, his back still turned, so Brad could look at him without being noticed.
“Listen, about...” he started.
“You don’t have to...”
“Nate,” he said more firmly. “Listen to me for a minute.”
Nate relented with a nod, but he only half-turned towards Brad, his eyes still locked on the frying-pan.
“I don’t have a good answer for you right now,” he said and watched as Nate’s shoulders tensed. “Not because I don’t want to tell you. I wish I could. I don’t enjoy hurting you more than I already did, you know.”
Nate opened his mouth to argue, but Brad shook his head.
“Wait, let me finish,” he added quickly. “I wish I had an answer for you that would satisfy you. I don’t. What I can tell you is this: I don’t want this” he waved between himself and Nate, “to end after one night. I want you. Fuck, this may be the only thing I am sure of right now.” He paused and had to stop himself from reaching out to reassure himself, or Nate, Brad wasn’t sure. “I want you. And it’s not just about sex, even if yes, I’m not going to lie, I want to fuck you again today and make you fuck my mouth. I can’t help wanting that.” Nate turned to face him and Brad noticed his skin started to flush. He got up and clasped his hand on Nate’s arm and squeezed once before letting go. “But this is not all I want.” This is not like the last time. “I want this, and more, today and hopefully I will want it tomorrow. But that’s just it. I don’t have any idea about tomorrow, even less about next week. I’m not avoiding the answer. I just don’t have one.”
Nate was looking at him in silence and Brad made himself stay completely still, eyes fixed somewhere over Nate’s shoulder. After a long moment Nate gave him a small smile and a shrug, turning off a stove.
“You just gave me one.”
“I’m pretty sure...”
“You told me you want this today,” Nate explained, speaking over him. “And you will probably want it tomorrow.
“It can’t be enough for you,” Brad argued. Because he was just that stupid, yes.
“Trust me, it can,” Nate said, shrugging again. “It’s much better than nothing.”
Brad wasn’t so sure, but he wasn’t going to argue anymore. There were limits, after all. Nate smiled at him more openly and reached out, tugging Brad closer to him.
“So for now we will take it one day at the time.”
“Oh, we will?” Brad said, starting to get amused. He let his arms circle Nate’s waist. At the feel of Nate’s body so close, Brad relaxed his shoulders and felt the tension disappearing slowly.
Nate grinned and kissed him light and quick before pulling away to go back to the eggs.
“Yes. One day at the time for now. But,” he added, putting the plates on the table and sitting down next to Brad to eat, “we’re not doing that infinitely. There’s a deadline. Two weeks from now, if you’re still not sure before that, you have to decide. In or out.”
“Two weeks,” Brad repeated. Until he would have to leave for Pendleton.
“We could be sick of each other by then,” he pointed out dryly.
Nate shrugged, looking down on his plate.
“Then the decision will be that much easier, right?”
Brad felt as if he regressed to his teenage years. He dove into sex with Nate as if he had just learned what exactly his dick was capable of and was trying to perfect it as often as possible.
Nate needed to leave for work usually around ten in the morning, so they had time for morning sex, breakfast and after-breakfast blowjob in the shower. In the evenings there was sex before sleep preceded by groping on the couch.
In short, they had sex a lot. What’s more, they were touching almost constantly when they were alone together and inside the house. And Brad was thinking of touching and fucking Nate whenever they weren’t.
Like right now.
“If you two aren’t fucking yet, you’re wasting your time,” B.J. was saying not-so-quietly. “But I get the feeling that you’re not.” A pause. “Wasting your time, I mean.”
“We’re not talking about anybody fucking anybody else tonight, B.J.,” Nate said seriously, warning in his tone. “I mean it.”
“So you don’t want to hear about that time when me and Tracy did...”
“No!” Nate interrupted him quickly. “For the love of everything, don’t finish that sentence.”
There’s only so much eavesdropping a person can do when he was supposed to be ‘right back’, so Brad came in to the kitchen.
“Everything is perfect,” B.J. announced, grabbing the six-pack of beers and a bottle of whisky. “Let’s get drunk.”
Brad rarely refused an offer like that.
It turned out to be a pretty decent evening, he had to admit. B.J. was an okay guy when he wasn’t being overly affectionate with Nate. They drank, they talked, shared some stories and drank some more.
“Fuck, I’m going to bed,” B.J. said around midnight, after emptying his glass and putting it on the table with a click.
Nate didn’t bother lifting his head from the back of the couch, he just rolled it in B.J.’s direction.
“The guest room is occupied, you have to take the couch.”
B.J. rolled his eyes.
“I can play the cripple card, if you want. Let’s say that Brad was nice enough to take the couch, so I can sleep in a bed.”
“You’re not a cripple,” Nate kicked him to make his point. Very mature, Brad thought.
“Nor an idiot,” B.J. tossed back.
Nate shrugged and nodded.
“Take the bed, then.”
Brad raised his eyebrows, but decided not to comment.
“Great,” B.J. said, getting up. He was drunk, that was obvious, but it was also the only problem with walking that he had. “Wet dreams,” he added, disappearing down the hall. They could hear him move, first to the bathroom, then to the guest room.
Nate finished his beer and moved to kneel between Brad’s spread legs. He put his hands on Brad’s thighs and bend down to bite lightly at his hardening cock under the denim.
“Fuck,” Brad groaned, when Nate looked up and smiled. The sight of him, smiling and on his knees, was enough to make Brad hard, drunk or not. He reached out and put a hand on Nate’s head, without pushing or pulling, just there.
The heat and the smoke, and pieces of metal and flesh flying around. Still nothing was worse than the darkness of it all.
He jerked and twisted, sitting up suddenly in a bed he didn’t recognize. It took him a few minutes to slow his heartbeat again, eyes adjusting and moving through the room all that time, cataloging everything.
When he lay down again, Nate’s eyes were open and he was looking at him silently, not touching. He just lay next to Brad, facing him, his regular breathing helping Brad get a hold of himself.
“What do you need?” Nate asked quietly. One of his hands was turned palm up between them, the other tucked around his stomach.
Brad shifted to face him and put his hand on Nate’s neck, finding the pulse point with his thumb and rubbing it.
“We’ve got lucky in Iraq,” Brad said, not louder than a whisper.
“We all came back.”
“Not so lucky this time.”
Nate brought his hand to rest on Brad’s chest, telegraphing every move along the way. Probably so Brad wouldn’t deck him.
“A mine on the road. The humvee ahead of ours blew up.”
Dean, their driver, made an immediate turn, josting them all in their seats and probably saving their lives at the same time. The pieces of Gordon’s humvee - and his team, too - were flying in every direction.
Brad turned to lie on his back and Nate’s hand followed the movement.
“There was nothing to recover. Even one guy’s dog tags were partially melted.”
The light in the room was enough to tell the shapes of it, and them, apart, but not much else.
“There were ten, maybe fifteen minutes right after the explosion when I couldn’t see anything.”
There. He said it. Aside from Captain Wilkinson and Major Willis, who were probably the only two people to read the after action report, no one who wasn’t there knew about it. Nobody even mentioned it to Brad after, aside from their fucking irritating corpsman who decided that Brad needed to be asked if his sight was okay every hour. He stopped when Brad told him he could shoot him from two hundred meters if he wanted proof.
Nate was silent for awhile before scooting closer to Brad and moving his hand to rest on his neck, putting a pressure, so Brad would turn and look at him. Even if there wasn’t much either of them could see on each other’s faces.
“You can see now,” Nate said quietly, thumb and forefinger running up and down on Brad’s jaw.
“Yeah,” he whispered. He couldn’t see Nate’s face, but he knew it well. “I can see just fine.”
Nate kissed him then, tongue pushing inside immediately. He moved even closer, his whole body plastered to Brad’s.
The kiss was slow and warm. Suddenly it made them both fragile in Brad’s head, too open and raw. He covered Nate with his body, pushing him to lie on his back. He hovered over Nate for a second before moving his hand slowly down his chest and taking a hold of his dick. Nate responded with his hips moving in tune with Brad’s strokes and quickened breath warm on Brad’s skin.
Nate reached down to Brad’s dick seconds later and now they were both grinding into each other’s touch. Nate’s fingers were in Brad’s hair, tugging him in for a kiss and Brad was leaving finger-shaped bruises on Nate’s hip.
Brad was looking into those crazy beautiful green eyes when he came, his forehead resting on Nate’s. He moved aside to lie on his side and Nate gasped, coming as well, his muscles giving up, making him melt into the bed. He turned to look at Brad, but Brad was already moving, snatching his boxers from the floor to wipe both of them. He hesitated for a moment afterwards, but Nate’s fingers ran over his lower back and he really didn’t want to move away from that.
They fell asleep quickly after and Brad slept like a baby for the rest of the night.
It was good, until it wasn’t.
He was fine in the mornings, when Nate was still home, but after he left for work, Brad couldn’t find a place for himself. He tried working out, sleeping, running, reading, biking around the city, but everything worked only for a little while. He felt more and more restless with each upcoming day, but the thought of leaving - even when he knew he had to, anyway - was even more upsetting.
There were two days left until the ultimatum when Terry Quinn arrived.
It was nine p.m. and Nate just got home and showered after another late night at the center. The doorbell rang when Brad was in the kitchen, putting the food on the plates.
“I got it,” Nate said, coming out of the bedroom, his hair still wet and t-shirt sticking to his skin.
“Hi, Nate,” Brad heard. The kitchen was close to the front door, so he didn’t have to eavesdrop at all to hear everything. “I’m sorry to bother you. I wanted to call first, but I... I really needed to see you.”
An ex. Brad was cooking them dinner and there was an ex at the door. Fantastic. He sat down and dug into his pasta, trying to ignore the thought that it was him a few weeks ago, the ex standing in Nate’s door, unannounced.
“Terry,” Nate sounded surprised. “Come in.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t call. I just... Maria threw me out of the house and I didn’t... I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t go to the bar, though. I wanted to, but I...”
Terry stopped short, when he entered the hall and noticed Brad in the kitchen.
“Calm down,” Nate put his hand on Terry’s shoulder and squeezed. “You did good. Relax.” When Terry did what was asked of him, Nate turned to look at Brad. “Terry, this is Brad, my friend from the time I served. Brad, this is Terry, I was his mentor over a year ago.”
Brad figured Terry was not an ex around the time the name of the wife was mentioned, but it was still nice to hear. He got up and came closer to shook Terry’s hand.
“Nice to meet you,” Terry said, sweaty hand quickly letting go of Brad’s.
“Likewise,” Brad said before turning to look at Nate. “I will let you two catch up. Let me just grab my dinner and I’m off to my room.”
“I’m sorry to...” Terry started, but Nate interrupted him.
“Don’t worry about it, Terry,” he said.
“I can eat it later.”
Half an hour ago you came in through the door saying you’re starving, Brad thought. He looked at him from the kitchen doorway and Nate sent him an apologetic look and a nod of thanks for stepping out.
Two hours later a knock on his door saved him from throwing his laptop through the room. Stupid shit.
“Come in,” he barked, laying the laptop on the floor next to the bed.
Nate opened the door and leaned on the frame.
“It’s me,” he stated the obvious. “I just wanted to tell you that Terry left. I’m sorry about the evening, he didn’t know what to do, so he did what he remembered working.”
Nate didn’t have to explain anything to Brad and Brad told him just that.
“He didn’t stay?” he added, raising his eyebrows.
“No.” Nate was looking at him questioningly, which didn’t help Brad’s mood. “He has a sister here. Why would he stay?”
“I just wondered if it’s another stray you let in to your house.”
Nate straightened up at that.
“Well, it’s hard not to notice that you’re taking in everybody that shows up at your doorstep.”
“I do not take everybody in,” Nate said, crossing his arms. “And fuck you for calling them, and you, for that matter, strays. Who do you think you are to me? Or Ben?”
“Good question.” Brad felt too hot and too closed in. People going crazy over the “ice” in Iceman would be surprised. He got up and started pacing.
“What the hell crawled up your ass?” Nate asked, coming in to the room.
“Not you,” Brad threw at him and felt a little sick when Nate stopped where he stood.
“Is that your problem?” he asked like he couldn’t believe it. “We’re not fucking for one evening and you’re going nuts on me?”
“Don’t flatter yourself,” Brad snapped. “I’ve managed just fine for over two years.”
Things were clearly going downhill really fast.
Nate took a step back, face blank and whole body tensed, probably just as hard as Brad’s.
“You should cool off. Maybe we both should.”
“Is that your professional opinion, Nate?”
Nate’s fingers flexed as if he wanted to make fists. He gripped his thighs instead.
“You have something to say to me, or accuse me of,” he said slowly, narrowing his eyes, “just fucking say it.”
Brad turned to face him now, his arms crossed.
“You let me in when I came unexpectedly, after two years of nothing and not exactly the most amicable goodbye before that. You don’t want anything, you don’t ask me anything. You’re... accommodating me. You take me to the center so I can ‘check it out’. You’re a Recon Marine and you move through the house, especially at night, as if you were blind, so I can hear you.” Brad felt like the fight was leaving him with every thing he mentioned, but the confusion was still there. And the anger didn’t really go away completely, either. “I don’t know what you want. I don’t know if you want to be with me or to treat me.”
“If I want to...” Nate started, disbelief in his voice. “You know what, fuck you.” He moved closer to Brad, slightly looking up at him. “I was so accommodating, because I love you. And I was careful, because I know how that is, after you come back and every fucking noise makes you look for your gun. It was a small thing I could do to help. So fuck you, Brad. I’ve never treated you like...”
Brad kissed him then, because he couldn’t not. Nate resisted at first, but Brad didn’t let go and soon they were kissing each other hard and a little painful. Nate’s hands were gripping Brad’s sides, leaving marks, and Brad’s fingers were digging into the nape of Nate’s neck, making sure he wasn’t moving away.
In the end, Nate did pull away first. They were both breathing harshly, still holding on to each other.
“Brad, listen, you can’t...”
“I feel like I’m stuck here,” Brad said quietly looking straight into Nate’s eyes. “I don’t know what I want and I can’t figure it out.” Not here. “I need to do that.” He held on when Nate wanted to move away. “Listen to me. It’s not that I don’t want you. I do, of course I do.” He tightened his grip on Nate’s neck and it had to be painful, but Nate didn’t say anything, didn’t push him away. “The problem is that I can’t figure out myself. And I have to report back at Pendleton in less than a week.” Ready for anything. As if.
They stood like that, not moving, for a minute, before Nate moved away and this time Brad let him go. He watched how Nate ran his fingers through his hair before looking back at Brad.
“When we made that last deal, we knew it was coming. Pendleton, I mean. I just...” he shrugged, “I guess I was hoping you’d make up your mind about us.”
“Nate, I want you,” Brad repeated, tugging at Nate to bring him closer and circle his waist with his arms again. “I just don’t know what I can offer you right now. I don’t know where I will be when I’m back from my leave.” He shrugged. “Not to mention that I seem to be unable to decide what to do with my afternoon, let alone foreseeable future.”
“I understand,” Nate said, but he didn’t sound too happy. More like resigned. Brad waited, but when Nate didn’t say anything else, he put a hand back on the nape of Nate’s neck and fixed his eyes on his thumb tracing the shape of Nate’s ear.
“Nate, you have to make a decision here. I’m bound to make a stupid one or not make one at all and you’ll think I don’t care.”
“What do you expect me to do here, Brad? I know what I want - I want you.” Brad looked up and Nate was looking straight at him again. “I get that you have to go back. But I’ll deal, if that means there are going to be times we spend together, between your job and mine. It could be like every other long-distance thing I’ve heard people can have,” he said, a small smile appearing for a moment, there and gone. “But I can’t make that decision for you. I just can’t. It’s not how it works. Even if I’m also scared that if I don’t, you’ll decide you don’t want this.” Again went unsaid, but Brad heard it just fine.
“I need to go. That part is clear,” he said into Nate’s forehead, lips touching the skin. “You want me and I want you, that’s clear, too. The problem is, I can’t commit right now and you’re scared to trust me that I will.”
Nate nodded and shrugged at the same time.
“I don’t want to get my hopes up. And you said it yourself, you don’t know what it is that you want. So maybe that won’t be me in the end.”
Unlikely, Brad thought, but didn’t say it. He disappointed Nate once, that was more than enough. Until he wasn’t sure, he couldn’t give Nate more.
He left the next morning.
There was a slight chance that Ray was a psychic. Not that Brad would ever say it out loud or believe in it, or anything like that.
Still, there was a possibility.
“Hello, dear,” Ray said when Brad opened his front door to see him on the porch. “I brought reinforcements,” he added, showing off his bags, the sound of glass hitting glass coming from the inside.
“Couldn’t you, I don’t know, use your phone to let me know you’re coming?”
“What for? You’re here, so it’s good.”
“Maybe I wanted to be alone,” Brad said, but he was already emptying the bags. Tequila and beer. Nice.
“To brood, yeah, I know,” Ray rolled his eyes and sat on the couch.
“I don’t brood.”
“So you didn’t spend half of your day working on your bike? Which is, I’m sure, perfectly fine?” Ray asked, raising his eyebrows.
Brad put the glasses on the coffee table and sat on the other end of the couch.
“I don’t know how that’s connected,” he shrugged.
“Yeah, sure thing,” Ray snorted, opening the bottle. “Your leave is ending and you have to go back, so you had to cut back on your little romantic getaway...”
It was a good thing Brad wasn’t drinking at that moment.
“Oh, please,” Ray handed him the beer, “like you and Nate Fick weren’t fucking when you were there.”
“Ray,” Brad started, warningly, but he didn’t actually know what to say.
“Let’s agree that yes, I already know and no, as far as I know nobody else knows, and move on from there.”
Move on from there. Sure.
“Ray, what are you doing here?”
“I’m making sure you weren’t too stupid this time.”
Brad honestly didn’t know what the fuck was going on.
Ray let out a sigh.
“I’m not stupid, Brad. You were sleeping with him before England, then you weren’t. And then you come back, you find out he got fucked up, and what do you do? You go on a road trip.”
“I didn’t intend to visit Nate,” he said, gripping his beer hard.
“Hopeless,” Ray muttered, shaking his head.
“Don’t you have your dick full of Nate already? Don’t be greedy, Brad.”
Brad reached out for the tequila. He was going to need it.
“Okay, you know me and Nate are fucking. Congratulations. What’s next? Walt’s sex life? Trombley’s?”
“I don’t want to think of those poor animals, please.”
“I don’t want you to think about Nate and me, either.”
“But Brad,” Ray turned his fake innocent eyes to him, “I have questions...”
“And I have a gun.”
Ray grinned and sat back. They drank in silence for a few minutes.
“What are you going to do?” Ray said, looking at the label on the bottle and picking it with his fingers.
“Well, whatever you do, don’t repeat your mistakes.” Ray reached out for his glass and downed his tequila. He made a face, before looking at Brad. “Nate is a good guy. And he would be great for you.”
I don’t know if you want to be with me or to treat me. Brad winced. He wasn’t so sure he was good for Nate.
“Don’t make that face. I’m not your fairy godmother, I’m just stating the fact. Don’t let him go because you’re stupid. Now drink.”
He did. They both did. The subject was closed, so they covered everything else.
“I went to see the major today,” Brad said an hour later, looking at his white wall between the tv screen and a bookshelf. “Looks like I’m on a training duty now.”
Ray laughed, that drunk kind of laughter when it would start like a babble and then erupt.
“Oh fuck, you will scare them all to death.”
“No, I won’t.”
“Yes, you will.”
“Well, since it’s that or a desk duty for me, they will have to learn to deal.”
“Sure, sure,” Ray was nodding, the laughter died down. “You, too.”
He didn’t have much choice, did he?
“You’re moving now?”
“Transferring,” he corrected. “For a year.”
“You really can’t stay still, can’t you?” she said with a sigh. She turned and opened the fridge to look for something. “Fine.”
For fuck’s sake.
It looked like she was rearranging the shelves.
“I heard you, Brad.”
“There are opportunities for me in Quantico that I don’t have here,” he said to her back. He would make her listen.
“Like what?” she said, closing the fridge door and turning to him. “You don’t want to train people here, but you will be training them there. What’s the difference?”
Different people. Not fresh recruits, but special ops. All the tech he could dream of for him to learn how to use.
But neither of those reasons could convince her.
“There’s someone there,” he said instead and watched as her eyebrows rose and she started to smile.
“Oh. There’s someone there,” she said, grinning at him.
“That’s what I just said.” He stood up straight.
“Is it Nate Fick?” she said, crossing her arms.
Apparently they were covering a coming out in this conversation, too.
When she grinned at him at that, he grinned back.
“I expect you both at Hanukkah this year, though,” she said, hugging him.
“Don’t push it,” he tossed back, bending to kiss her head. She stamped on his foot in retaliation.
It was like a déjà-vu all over again, down to the same Spider-man pajamas.
“Hi,” the boy said and moved away to let him in.
“Ben, what did I tell you...” Brad could hear Nate’s raised voice from the bathroom.
“It’s Brad, uncle Nate,” the boy shouted and there was a loud thud behind the bathroom door. “I know him.”
Nate came out two seconds later dressed only in sweatpants, the hair still wet and skin flushed from a hot shower. And seriously, Ben shouldn’t be in the same neighbourhood when Brad saw Nate like that, because Brad really couldn’t control his thoughts. Or his dick.
“You came back fast,” Ben informed him, looking at him from head to toe. Brad resisted shifting his feet.
“Yes, I did.”
“Cool,” Ben decided with a smile. “Mom said…”
“Go back to your movie, please” Nate interrupted him, coming up to Brad.
Brad put his hands on Nate’s hips immediately after Ben turned around. The skin was still a little wet there. He tightened his grip.
“They told me I can train new guys or sit behind the desk,” he started, distracted by all the skin on display. He spent a couple of seconds staring at Nate’s collarbone where he made a mark just before leaving. There was nothing there now, just a soft, flushed skin Brad wanted to bite again. He made himself look Nate in the eyes. “Didn’t much care for either, so I talked with Steve, my friend at Quantico.”
Nate stood there, staring at him, at his lips, like he wanted to make sure he would get it right.
“I’m transferring for a year.”
Nate moved then, suddenly, he pinned Brad to the front door with his body, away from Ben’s line of sight. He ran his hands up Brad’s arms and down his chest, resting on the stomach.
Brad grabbed the side of Nate’s neck and pulled him into a kiss, fast and hard. He nipped at Nate’s lower lip and got a quiet moan for his efforts. He slowed down then, leaving a line of small kisses on Nate’s jaw. Nate’s hands found their way beneath the back of Brad’s t-shirt, stroking the skin. Brad was riding all day and he was dirty, smelling of sweat and bad coffee, while Nate just showered. But he obviously didn’t care, if the way he hooked his foot over Brad’s ankle to bring them even closer was any indication.
Fuck, Brad wanted him so badly. But there was Ben in the hearing distance and a few things that needed to be said.
“We have a year to figure things out,” was what he went with, his lips on Nate’s forehead, because he didn’t want to pull away. “I thought that was a better deal than the one we made last time.”
Nate’s body shook a little with laughter.
“Yeah,” he said, lifting his head, bright green eyes that would probably never stop making Brad stupid looking straight at him. “I think so too.”
It was the nicest Sunday in a month, the perfect day for another Wringley’s get-together. Brad was sitting on bench under the shadow of the trees, far away enough from main events to have some peace and not too much as to not have Nate looking for him and dragging him to the middle of it. Last time he made Brad manage the grill after he found him waiting it out in Nate’s office.
There was a guy sitting on the next bench, but they sat in the comfortable silence.
“Did you serve?” the guy asked suddenly, turning to look at Brad, as if he heard Brad’s thought and decided that no, silence would not do.
“Still do,” he said. “I’m a Marine. Working at the Quantico base now.”
“Getting old?” the guy smirked and Brad would probably take offense on a different day, but he didn’t even raised an eyebrow now. He heard worse.
“Not even close.”
“Any trip overseas?” was the next question. Easy enough.
“Three. Afghanistan in ‘02, Iraq in ‘03 and Afghanistan again two years ago.”
The guy nodded.
“You?” Brad asked. It was good to be polite. Or so he had been told.
“Two tours in Iraq, ‘04 and ‘06.”
They were back to silence for a few minutes and Brad was considering closing his eyes, when the guy spoke again.
“After I came back last year, I couldn’t stand the beach,” he said quietly, almost whispering. “I moved away from California because of that.”
Brad didn’t turn to look at him. He tried to locate Nate in the crowd instead.
“I had the same thing for months after Iraq,” he admitted softly after he noticed Nate sitting with Will and Rachel, laughing at something she said. “Every beach was a desert.”
“And what did you do?” the guy asked. “Move away too?”
“Went there every other day,” Brad shrugged.
The guy laughed at that and Brad turned to look at him.
“A masochist, huh?” the guy joked.
Brad smiled, showing his teeth.
“Like you wouldn’t believe.”
“Trust me, man,” the guy said, looking away, “I’d believe almost anything now.”
Brad thought that he just might as well.
“Any particular reason you decided to tell me that?” he asked. The guy didn’t look like a sharing and caring type.
“My homework,” the guy said dryly. “I’m supposed to tell three people about something that happened to me during or after.”
“And how’s that going?”
“Well, you’re my first,” the guy said with a small smile, feeling behind it just enough to make it real. "So far, so good.”
Brad thought for a second of cracking a ‘that’s what she said’ joke, but he didn’t know the guy, so he let it go. He turned away to see Nate looking at him with a smile.
He stood up.
“I didn’t go every day,” Brad said as a goodbye. The guy nodded and looked away, closing his eyes.
Brad grabbed two pieces of chicken from the grill and a salad for Nate before coming over to him.
“Hey, you,” Nate said, shifting to make a room for him. “Are you in a lot of pain?”
Will and Rachel snorted and Brad elbowed Nate in the ribs.
“No, but you can be. Also, shut up. I’m socializing.”
“I’ve seen,” Nate said before taking the salad from Brad. “I’m so proud.”
Brad rolled his eyes.
“I’m not three.”
“Three-year-olds usually actually like to play with others,” Rachel said, when Nate was busy stuffing his mouth with lettuce and small tomatoes. He did however look up at that and grinned at Brad who raised his eyebrows. Brad’s lips twitched at one corner.
I like to play with you went unsaid, but Nate heard him just fine. He smirked.
“For an anti-social individual, Brad’s actually not bad.”
Brad shook his head and elbowed him again, only to be poked in the arm with a little plastic fork that broke at the contact. Nate threw his head back while he laughed.
Yeah, Brad thought. Not bad at all.