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Mr Frosty

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Boston, MA

"I try to discover...a little something to make me sweeter..."

"Two cherry-bomb snow cones, Ray! Extra frosty," Brad called over his shoulder, sweat pooling on his brow.

"That you give me no reason, why you make me work so hard..." Ray sang as the mixer buzzed, blending together the ice and sugar.

Looking back at his customers—two small people of indeterminate age—Brad tried for a casual smile. They were maybe eight? Ten? Brad made a mental note to find out what age children usually lost their front teeth. Part of a good recon involved understanding the people who inhabited the local environment.

Stale, hot air blew through the window, making Brad feel even hotter. He tugged his collar which offered little relief.

"Here you go," Ray said, passing the snow cones to the kids, still humming under his breath. "Enjoy your red dye number forty!"

Without pausing, the kids snatched up their desserts and went bounding back to their group of friends. The cacophony of mothers' yelling to stop throwing sand, teenagers swearing and kids heckling as they pounded the pavement with a basketball came loudly through the open window of the ice cream truck.

"This blows, Brad," Ray said, leaning on the counter. Even Ray's paper hat was wilted from the heat. Removing his hat, Ray crumbled it into a ball and threw into a makeshift basketball net hanging above the freezer, scoring a basket. "We've been at this for what? Twelve days? The only MOFO we've seen are the bastards who stole that kid's slushy last week and the last suburban looking retard had eight kids in tow. I think Godfather's been smoking the crack pipe, again. In fact, now that I think about it, following him will probably give us a better shot of finding X-Ray than standing around here, serving popsicles in the shape of Dora-the-fucking-Explorer and contributing to childhood obesity."

Brad raised an eyebrow. He wasn't about to get sucked into a debate on the damage to children's psyche that occurred when they ate the heads off their beloved cartoon characters and whether or not said damage led to future cannibalism, again.

"The ice cream truck was your idea, remember?" Brad offered.

Ray shrugged and then dug into the container of nuts and threw a handful into his mouth. "Ithasitsperks," he said with his mouth full, spraying Brad in the process.

Brad took a deep breath and wiped his face.

"Besides," Ray continued when he was mostly finished chewing, "you went all James Bond on us, installing those acquisition receivers and signal and radio intercept systems. Every time you play with them I think you're going to jizz all over the seat. You can't tell me you don't love Mr. Frosty here."

Brad snorted. It was true, he did have a fondness for the Mobile Electronic Warfare Support System he'd acquired. Not that he was about to agree with Ray out loud. He would never hear the end of it. "I would still rather function as an amphibious assault unit."

Ray rolled his eyes and was about to launch into some diatribe or another when the compressor on the side of the cold plate started wheezing, calling for Ray's special brand of attention.

Using his reprieve to take out his binoculars, Brad scoped the area for the thirteenth time. Aside from the sweltering heat, it was a beautiful day. The kids were out in force. Graffiti covered the buildings that backed onto the basketball courts and the smell of bleach from a nearby Laundromat permeated the air. The park was busy since there was nowhere else for kids to play in this neighborhood—which was why they'd picked this spot. The bastard they were looking for liked to prey in troubled areas and intel had him pinned down around here.

His eyes rested on Hasser, three hundred yards north of their position, as he sold ice cream out of his bicycle cart. Walt caught Brad's eyes as his last customer left and casually flipped him the bird. Brad chuckled under his breath. Walt hadn't been happy pulling bicycle duty, again.

"Frostbite, this is Iceman. Deploy sun umbrella, over," Brad said, speaking into the microphone imbedded in his bow tie. Walt's face was already an unpleasant shade of pink.

Walt shook his head and brought his hand up to his face to cover his speech. "Negative Iceman. Handle for deployment is FUBAR. I never got the replacement part."

Brad cursed under his breath. That was yet another item to add to the long list of things he had to speak to his boss about. "Understood. Make sure you utilize the sunscreen then. Iceman out."

On the other side of the park, Trombley stabbed at garbage in the grass with his litter picker, not so subtly looking around. At least Brad didn't have to worry about him getting sunburned. Over the last week, Trombley had tried to stab several dogs that had come too close, earning him the scorn of local dog owners, pigeon feeders and other animal-loving sentimentals. Since then, the kids had resorted to throwing empty soda cans at him, which meant that Trombley spent a large portion of his time running away from bees and other insects attracted to the sugar that invariably covered him. Two days ago Brad had told him to wear a thick pair of coveralls and be done with it. No bee stings, no sunburn.

Brad sighed and wondered—not for the first time—if he'd made the right decision following Godfather into civilian life. Ninety percent of combat usually involved waiting around, but two years for this op was stretching even his patience a little thin. Not to mention, with all the restrictions Godfather had put on their conduct, Brad was starting to think he'd been a more effective warrior while still in the Marines driving around in open-top Humvees.

The compressor's wheezing worked itself up to a climactic spasm that finally made Brad put the binoculars down and look over. Picking up his wrench, Ray gave up tinkering and whacked it on top with a loud clang, making it stutter and splatter until it finally resumed normal operation. "Piece of fucking shit ass machine—"

"Ray..." Brad said in warning as another group of children approached. He flashed them his widest grin while tucking his binoculars under the counter and keeping an eye on Ray. Ray tossed his wrench into a nearby tool chest, pulling out a baseball hat from underneath it and putting it on his head. Ray's "We don't dial 9-1-1" Texas souvenir hat showcasing a silhouette of the state and a gun, wasn't exactly part of the uniform.

"Hi." A sandy-haired man flashed Brad a quick grin as he approached the truck and then turned to his brood, making a show of counting heads. "...four...five soft ice cream cones with chocolate, please."

Brad twisted his lips and nodded, pulling out the cones he needed. He was better at judging adult ages and this man looked to be in his early twenties. Clean-cut, fit. Looked like he belonged in a church choir, except for something in his eyes. The way he took in Brad and smiled at Ray's hat made him seem very aware. One of the teens was about to attach his gum to the wheel well of the truck and faster than Brad could stop him, the man had a grip on the kid's arm and was indicating the location of the nearest trash.

"These all yours?" Brad asked, settling back into his role. They were still on the lookout for X-Ray and anyone else involved in the cartel and this man was definitely not one of the exhausted parents they usually saw.

"God, no," the man laughed, turning back to Brad after the kid reluctantly went to dispose of his gum. He gave Brad another easy smile.

Oddly enough, Brad felt himself smiling back. Congeniality had died a quick and painful death during the first days of their surveillance—dealing with hundreds of excited, hysterical children doped up on sugar, demanding their next hit of candy or chocolate-covered ice cream was enough to make anyone despise this business. It was unexpected to feel a smile forming on his lips now.

"This is my nephew and his friends," the man said, rubbing the head of the tallest kid standing closest to him and Brad saw that there was indeed some familial resemblance. They had similar eyes, yes, but the kid had that awkward, slouched posture and uncomfortable look about him that reminded Brad how much it sucked to be a teenager. The man however, was anything but awkward and uncomfortable.

Brad's eyes returned back to the man's and they held contact for a moment. Then Brad's stomach did a little flip-flop and he accidentally dripped ice cream all over his hands.

"Fuck," Brad muttered, then clamped his mouth shut when he realized kids were within earshot. "Shit. Sorry."

The man tried to suppress a grin. "I'm sure they've heard worse."

Giving himself a mental shake, Brad decided it was best to keep his mouth shut. He gave the man a tight nod and finished dishing out the cones. "That'll be six-fifty."

As the man reached into his wallet, Brad leaned over to wipe the counter; mostly to keep busy and out of trouble. Just as he was about to reach out with a rag, he heard a quiet intake of breath. Following the man's line of sight to where Brad's apron gaped, Brad saw that his shoulder holster and firearm were visible.

The man threw money at him, then quickly corralled the kids away from the ice cream truck without waiting for his change.

"Oh, for fuck's sake," Brad said, shaking his head when they were all out of sight.

"Brad, man, that was priceless. You're not gonna get a date now that you traumatized his family."

"What?" It turned out that Ray was standing right behind him; bastard had probably been looking over his shoulder the whole time.

"Come on! We've been working together for years and I've never seen you making moon-eyes at anyone, ever, and now you fall for some guy, no less? And you expect me to drop it? Uh-uh. Ain't gonna happen."

Brad finished wiping up his mess, sparing Ray a withering glance.

"Don't give me that look."

"What look?" Brad said, throwing his rag at Ray's face.

"The look that says you're plotting where to bury my bones," Ray said, catching the rag and then tossing it over his shoulder toward the back of the truck where his paper hat and wrench had fallen. "How could you keep such a dirty little secret from your dearest pal Ray-Ray?" Ray came up close and put his arm around Brad's shoulder and tickled his ear. "Doesn't mean we can't still be friends. And I do mean friends and not friends with benefits because I prefer my fuckmates to have less hair on their chests. No offense."

Brad took a deep breath and then shrugged Ray's arm off. 'There is no secret, Ray."

"Sure, sure," Ray nodded sagely. "These are not the droids you're looking for. I get it."

"That's not what I meant!" But before he could explain, or smack Ray to wipe the smirk off his face, more kids came up to the window. For once, Ray served them with enthusiasm and a smile. He didn't even hit on the mom or her obviously underage teenage daughter.

It gave Brad the minute or so he needed to get his head back in the game. He grabbed his radio to call in.

"What are you doing?" Ray asked when the crowd had dispersed, frozen treats in hand.

Brad had booted up his computer and was loading the GPS software. "We should pull out, ASAP. We've been compromised. I'm just trying to find another location where we can still help with the surveillance—"

"You think that guy's going to rat us out?"

Brad remembered the man's eyes. "He just saw me serving his nephew ice cream while carrying a 9 mm. I'm sure he's already called 911."

"If we were in Texas..." Ray said with a smirk, pointing at his hat.

Brad looked back to his computer.

"Wait, Brad. All Schwetje has to do is intercept the call..."

Brad paused, giving Ray a chance to think about what he just said.

"Well...he was in Intelligence before..." Ray stopped himself in mid-sentence. "Right. Never mind. Fucking Encino Man. Sorry."

With a swift move, Ray slammed the serving window shut and moved past Brad to hop into the driver's seat. Brad grabbed the radio headpiece just as the speaker began to squawk.

"All Hitman-Two Victors, this is Two-Two. We have a visual on X-Ray, over."

"Two-Two, this is Two-One Alpha. Copy that. Location?" Brad pulled out another set of binoculars from the glove box. The possible 911 call could wait.

"He just entered the north end of the park and is driving toward the Laundromat."

Brad scanned the area, finding the target easily; X-Ray was driving a very nice, very conspicuous red Mustang. He snorted. Sometimes they made it too easy. "Affirmative, I have a visual. We'll move to intercept."

As he put the binoculars down, he happened to glance at his laptop which was perched on the dash. The computer was also linked to the security cameras hidden around the outside of the truck and Brad swore as he looked at the feed in the top left-hand quadrant.

Twelve days they'd been at this surveillance, each day more mind-numbingly boring than the one before and now that they finally had a fucking lead, he had to deal with this.

The green-eyed man hadn't called 911. He was currently crouched near the rear of the truck holding a box-cutter—probably waiting for a chance to slash the tires.

Brad jumped up and hopped over Ray, opening the driver's side door. With a finger over his mouth to indicate Ray should be silent, Brad quickly got out of the truck, sliding silently to the pavement.

Taking a moment to gather his bearings, the first thing Brad noticed was the silence. A shiver went up his spine as he saw that the park was completely empty; the swings still swaying back and forth as if they'd just been recently vacated.

Even the birds seemed to have fled for safer ground.

Taking a deep breath, Brad continued on. As strange and eerie as it was, at least there was less possibility of collateral damage.

Controlling his body, he moved toward the rear of the truck, rolling his feet as he took each step, careful to avoid the crunch of loose stones. He couldn't afford to lose what little tactical advantage he had. He steadied his breath as he peaked around the corner.

The man was looking the other way.

Springing into action, Brad caught the man's waist with a solid tackle, just as the man was about to go around the other corner. Using their momentum, Brad twisted his shoulder, bringing them both down to the ground.

Brad's arm took most of the impact on the loose gravel on the road, but the momentary stun he'd been expecting to use to secure the man, never materialized. Instead, the man twisted and weaseled his way out of Brad's grasp and Brad had to tackle him again, face down and use all his weight to pin him.

"It's over," Brad said forcefully, sitting up so that he could secure the man's hands behind his back.

"No," the man said with a grunt as he managed to twist his upper body around to bring his elbow back and smash it directly into Brad's nose.

The flash of pain almost made Brad let go. As it was, he barely kept a grip on the man's shirt. Blinking back the sting, he threw himself forward, pushing the man's face into the ground. By feel, he grabbed the man's arm and twisted it up, forcing the man to stay down or dislocate his shoulder.

Brad used his other arm to pound on the back of the truck.

A few seconds later, Ray was beside him flex-cuffing the man's arms and slapping a piece of duct-tape over his mouth. Together they lifted him through the passenger side door and threw him into the back of the truck.

They jumped back into their seats. Brad made sure his nose was mostly straight while Ray threw the truck into drive.

"You okay, Brad?" Ray asked.

Brad grunted. "Just drive."

They were about to pull out when the target, who had gotten out of his vehicle and was walking toward the Laundromat, glanced around at the now empty park. When his eyes settled on their truck, he broke out into a run, back to his Mustang.

Peeling out ahead of them, Ray quickly followed.

"Switch to Pursuit Mode," Brad ordered.

Ray flicked a switch and with a hum, the ice cream truck rose five more inches off the ground, and the autoplay melody cut-off.

"All Hitman-Two Victors, this is Two-One Alpha. Target is on the run. We are in pursuit eastbound toward Dunn Avenue, requesting bird's eye view," Brad said into the comms.

"Two-One this is Hitman Actual. Negative on the birds. Stay within fifty mikes and retain visual. Over."

"Roger. Two-One, out," Brad reached down to unlock his M4 from under his seat. "Negative on overhead birds, Ray. We have to stay within fifty meters and retain visual on the target."

Ray shook his head. "Whatever, man. Let's not forget Mr. Frosty here tops out at fifty, even in Pursuit Mode."

"Do the best you can, Ray."

The truck rattled horribly as Ray pressed the gas, maneuvering down the side street that would lead them onto Dunn Avenue. Each speed bump they hit tossed them right up off the seats and anything not tied down went scattering everywhere. Ray's collection of souvenir snow globes and the dancing hula girl that dotted the dash were the only things that stayed where they were supposed to be.

"There he is," Brad said, pointing to the Mustang as it veered in the wrong direction down a one way street. Ray didn't hesitate before following.

Horns blared as cars had to pull off to the side to avoid getting hit, but this worked in their favor. The traffic tied up the Mustang so he couldn't take advantage of the tremendous difference in horsepower. Brad saw that they were quickly coming to an intersection. Glancing around, he stuck the barrel of his M4 out the window. He had to risk it before they lost the target.

Tap, tap, tap.

Three shots hit the right rear tire, tearing it to shreds and forcing the Mustang to veer. Still managing to retain control of his vehicle, X-Ray gunned the gas, determined to get away while he still could.

A police car shot out from the intersection ahead, spinning around so it blocked the road.

"Two-One, this is Two-Two. We're in position."

Brad braced himself as Ray slammed on the brakes and swerved, tires squealing as they stopped inches from the curb. The Mustang, swerving to avoid the cop car, hopped over the curb and slammed into a fire hydrant. The fire hydrant cracked, shooting a geyser of water straight up in the air.

When the first drops of water started raining down their windshield, a pedestrian screamed in shock. Patrick and Reyes jumped out of the cruiser in their police uniforms and forcibly ejected the man from the Mustang, securing him once he was down on the ground. Another pedestrian stood at the side of the road, snapping pictures on his cell phone and waving his hands around to other neighbors coming out to investigate.

Letting out a deep breath, Brad stowed his rifle and surveyed the damage inside the truck. He found his laptop behind the driver's seat with a nice crack in the case. With a sigh, he hefted it back into its station mounted on the front console. Snow was swirling majestically inside the dome with the Statue of Liberty just behind the docking station, mocking Brad with its presence. A thousand dollars worth of equipment went flying but five dollar snow globes held to the dash by double-sided tape didn't. Brad eyed the screws holding the docking station in place and vowed to get more tape.

Luckily for them, the crack in the laptop was just cosmetic. Brad was able to hook up the security feed in time to see a black sedan cruising up beside them.

"Nice job guys," Schwetje said, hitting the side of the ice cream truck as he passed them. Brad immediately got out and joined his boss by the Mustang.

The target was on the floor, sweat pouring down his face and back. There was a crowd now so Reyes made a show of slapping on some handcuffs and putting him in the back seat of the cruiser.

"Sir, can I talk to you for a minute?" Brad asked.

Schwetje didn't seem to hear him; instead he pulled out a camera and started snapping pictures. His aid, Greigo, brought over a fishing tackle box with white CSI lettering stenciled onto the side and pretended to start dusting the steering wheel for fingerprints.

"Sir," Brad repeated himself.

Schwetje finally glanced up at him. "Gotta make this look authentic, Brad. Speaking of which, you should probably get your vehicle out of here. This is supposed to be official police business."

Brad tried to keep his face from twitching. Dealing with Hitman directly was always bad for his nerves.

"That's what I wanted to talk to you about. Before the chase started, I was made by a civilian." Brad forced the last part out through gritted teeth.

"What?" Schwetje put down the camera long enough to look at Mr. Frosty. "I hope you neutralized him. You know how Godfather hates complications."

The vein in his temple throbbed a little stronger as Brad tried to hide his disgust—Schwetje's tone was casual, as if he was asking Brad if he had filed his paperwork on time. Sometimes, Brad wasn't sure if his superiors were any better than the people they'd sworn to protect their country from.

"He's contained, sir," Brad said, gritting his teeth. "The man is secure in the back of the truck. When we're done here, I will drop him off in the middle of nowhere. By the time he reaches a phone, we'll be long gone."

Two-Three arrived in a tow-truck and started hooking up the Mustang. One of the braver people gawking at the show approached Brad and Schwetje.

"Excuse me, officer? What's going on here?"

"Fine. Keep him for now until we're sure the job's over," Schwetje said under his breath to Brad before turning to the local with a smile on his face.

"This is official police business," Schwetje started off. "I can't comment on an open investigation but I think it's fair to say that street racing is a menace to today's society. People don't understand..."

Brad turned and walked away.

"Keep him!" Brad grumbled as he opened the door and got back in the truck. "How would you like to keep our guest, Ray? I have no idea where we're supposed to take him, but we have to get out of here in case the real cops show up."

"Sure," Ray said with a glitter in his eye. "Bound to happen sooner or later with Tweedle Dumb and Tweedle Dumber running the op here. We could go to Florida. I hear it's lovely this time of year. No snow globes, but maybe I can get a stuffed alligator tail to hang on the wall."

Brad let Ray's voice lull him as Ray popped the truck into reverse and headed back the way they'd come. "Sometimes, I think we succeed in spite of ourselves," Brad said, watching the buildings going by.

"Aren't you sorry you turned down the promotion now? You could have been working closely with Encino Man every day of the week," Ray asked.

Brad shuddered. "I have enough joy in my life dealing with the likes of you."

Once they were away from the growing crowds and traffic, Brad glanced back at their charge. The man didn't look very happy. He was sprawled on the floor with a cut on his forehead and blood trickling down his face. With his hands tied behind his back, he must have been unable to brace his fall when he was thrown around in the truck. Brad got up and made his way over, helping the man sit up.

"So can I really go to Florida?" Ray called out.

"No, Ray. Just find us a place we can hole up inconspicuously for a few hours. And ask Two-Three if they can swing by the park and pick up Hasser and Trombley."

"Trombley's going to be pissed he missed all the action."

Brad snorted in agreement before turning back to the man. Studying him, Brad couldn't help but admire the fact that he was still holding his shit together. Sure, he was bleeding, but instead of freaking out, he was studying Brad right back.

In fact, those green eyes Brad had admired before were likely memorizing every feature of his face.

Fuck. He probably should have put on a mask or something. Brad raked a hand over his short hair. He was being very sloppy. He had no idea what the fuck was wrong with him.

Mentally giving himself a shake, Brad got up and started patting down the man's pockets for weapons, cell phones or other things of interest. It was impossible to completely ignore the awareness of their proximity, however, so Brad worked quickly, forcing himself to concentrate on the task at hand and ignore the slight woodsy scent he smelled when he stepped in close to pat the man's chest. On the inside of the man's jacket, he found a wallet and pulled it out, taking a step back with some relief.

"So, we're going to be hanging out for a while," Brad said, busying himself with searching the wallet. It was unlikely the man would believe anything he said, but if he could assure him he wouldn't be harmed, maybe there would be less trouble. "We're not interested in hurting you...Nathaniel...Fick. If you don't cause us anymore trouble, you'll get to go home to your family when this is all over."

Fick's eyes shot him daggers.

Brad shrugged, opened one of the jump seats attached to the wall and sat down. The truck kept bouncing along, the new shocks they'd installed last month not helping at all. Brad resisted the urge to sigh again and looked out the serving window instead, pulling off his apron and bow-tie. He was happy to be done with the ice cream service, at least.

Twenty minutes later, they pulled into an industrial complex.

"We should be good here," Ray said turning off the truck. He came into the back stretching his arms.

"Thanks, Ray."

"So, who's our pocket full of sunshine here?" he asked gesturing toward Fick. Brad passed Ray the wallet while he got up to check on their hideout. Ray had found a back alley that looked deserted. The sun was starting to set and glancing at his watch, Brad was surprised to see it was almost six o'clock. He rolled up the front windows before going to the back.

"If you're good and there's no yelling, I'll take the tape off your mouth," Brad told Fick. "Then we can go about getting you something to drink or eat."

Fick gave him a hard look, followed reluctantly by a shrug. Good enough.

Trying not to rip off any skin, Brad quickly removed the gag. Then he leaned Fick forward and with Ray covering them with his 9mm, Brad removed the flex-cuff from Fick's wrists and moved his hands so they were secured in front of his body instead.

"Who the fuck are you guys?" Fick asked after he'd rolled his shoulders and tested out his new position. Fick still wasn't happy, but Brad was surprised Fick was taking this as calmly as he was. Most civilians would have been in hysterics at being tied up and kidnapped.

"I'm Ray, he's Brad," Ray said, taking off his apron and tucking the pistol into the waist band of his jeans. He stooped down to pick up a caramel apple that had rolled onto the floor. Never one for being picky, Ray blew the dust off and took a big bite.

"Ray," Brad said in exasperation as Ray sprayed candy and juice in a five foot radius around him.

"What? It's not like he's not going to hear our names at some point. Unless you want me to call you Tom all day. You can be Tom, I'll be Jerry. You chase me around and I'll try and stick your tail in a waffle iron. It'll be fun!"

Brad wondered why he even bothered some days. The compressor for the cold plate picked that moment to start wheezing again which made the day complete. Ray slumped his shoulders as he started searching for his wrench. The tools had, of course, gone flying during the high speed chase over the speed bumps.

"Onto the more interesting question," Ray continued as he stuck the apple in his mouth and reached under the driver's seat, "Who d'fuck are you?"

Ray was surprisingly coherent despite the apple.

"What do you mean?" Fick answered angrily, tilting his head to follow Ray's movements in unwrenching the wrench. "You're the guys who kidnapped me."

"...ki'napped is such a harsh word," Ray said, pulling the wrench free. He was then able to take the apple out of his mouth, but by then there was drool, caramel and apple pieces all the way down his chin. "We prefer to call it borrowing to keep you from calling the cops and involving them in something they are neither equipped nor capable of dealing with."

Brad came back with two wet rags and handed one to Fick. "For your head. You're bleeding," he said. Then he tossed the other one to Ray. "Clean your fucking face, Ray."

Ray smiled as he wiped his chin with his sleeve and used the rag to clean off the wrench instead. The compressor had moved into its high-pitched death throes.

With his ears ringing and a headache starting to form behind his eyes, Brad reached out and grabbed the nearest item; a pewter replica of the Washington monument, which Ray had purchased because it reminded him of a giant penis. Brad whacked the top of the compressor. The compressors sputtered and banged, and then settled back down again.

"The pewter penis does it again," Ray said with a smile.

Fick cautiously took his own rag and wiped at his forehead. "You guys are the weirdest bunch of criminals I've ever seen."

With a sign, Brad put the replica back in its place on top of the freezer and gave Fick a shrug. The politicians in Washington had called Godfather's group worse things than that while still handing them money and equipment. "You have no idea."

 

~~~

 

"Your love is better than ice cream, better than anything else that I've tried. And your love is better than ice cream but everyone here knows how to cry..."

Ray crooned in a high-pitched falsetto. Not for the first time, Brad wondered why none of their vehicles, with all their high-tech wonders ever included a radio that could tune in to FM frequencies. Or barring that, why he kept forgetting to bring earplugs.

"You better not be watching porn on that thing," Brad said in the dimness as Ray's fingers flew across the laptop's keyboard in time to the beat. It was dark outside and Ray's face was illuminated only by the light of the screen.

Ray rolled his eyes. "Please. Give me some credit, Brad. If I was, I'd turn the screen so you could see too."

Brad smirked and stuck his flashlight back in his mouth, amused for a few seconds at the idea of surfing porn on the internet. If he were surfing porn, it would mean he wasn't stuck in this goddamn truck, waiting for someone else to do their job because he'd fucked up his own. He should be helping with the interrogation or at the very least, fact-checking anything X-Ray may have let slip. Instead, he was here, rewiring the guidance controls for the Predator missile system for the truck, switching them to a new computer—one firmly mounted to the passenger side dash.

He sighed and tried to ignore the pang of exhaustion. Last time he'd checked, Fick had fallen asleep against a box of blue Slushy syrup. Brad tried to push away the errant thought of how young he looked with his eyes closed. The driver's license had said he was twenty-five—a few years younger than Brad. Perfectly acceptable, if there was anything acceptable about this situation at all.

Stretching in the cramped space, Brad glanced at his watch. It was two o'clock in the morning—eight hours, and they still didn't have any new intel. Brad was beginning to doubt that Encino Man even knew the meaning of the word.

"So how long have you been gay?" Ray asked casually.

Brad snapped his eyes back to his own task and didn't dignify Ray with a response.

"Please don't tell me this is your first gay encounter. Am I going to have to start a support group? It's okay, you know. You can talk to your pal, Ray-Ray. I once had a dream about bending Walt over the M19 and fucking him in the turret while driving down an Interstate in Missouri with ABBA cranking on the radio."

Then there were times that Ray left him completely speechless. Brad closed his mouth when he realized it had been hanging open.

"ABBA?" Brad asked, finally.

Ray shrugged and then ran his fingers through his hair as if suddenly embarrassed about what he'd just said. "The Swedish are very liberal about sexuality," he replied, then turned back to the laptop screen and started typing.

Brad let the subject go. He wasn't going to tell Ray about the time in college he'd let his roommate blow him. The actual blow-job hadn't been bad, but the resulting freak-out from his roommate the day after, followed by him moving out because he'd been so embarrassed by what they'd done had soured the whole thing in Brad's mind. Gay, straight, whatever. The only labels Brad had ever been interested in were good guys and bad guys, and even those lines got crossed all too often.

All irrelevant because Brad was not interested in Fick. They were in the middle of an operation and Fick was their hostage. If he wanted a casual fuck, there were business men who could arrange it for him. Men, women or anything in between.

"Nathaniel Fick...Washington driver's license...has a sister in Boston," Ray carried on, talking to his laptop. "Good credit rating. Normal amount of activity on his credit card, though his checking account's been busy. Wire transfer for ten grand a week ago to another account here in Boston. Another wire transfer six months ago. Looks like there's been one every six months for the last two years. Went to Dartmouth...now this is interesting."

Brad was almost finished soldering when Ray interrupted again. "Get this, your lover boy is ex-Recon."

Brad looked up from the circuit boards. "What?"

"Fick. He was an Officer in 1st Reconnaissance Battalion. How's that for providence?"

Putting the circuit board and soldering iron down and taking the laptop from Ray, Brad looked at the screen more closely. Sure enough, there was an article in Rolling Stone magazine. Scanning it, Brad quickly realized there had been a reporter imbedded in Fick's platoon during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Fick's name featured prominently in the article and it was obvious the reporter had thought highly of him.

To be fair, Brad was sure most reporters didn't know their dicks from their asses, but even skimming, it was obvious the reporter had had plenty of nasty things to say about Fick's superiors so at least he could discriminate between different behaviors.

"An officer almost took you down, Brad," Ray said with a grin when he looked up. "You must be losing your touch."

He went back up to the beginning and started actually reading it. The narrative was easy and straight-forward to follow, the scenes playing out vividly in his head. It was like déjà-vu. He could see himself in all these things—Afghanistan hadn't been the clusterfuck Iraq had, but really—same shit, different pile.

He paused after reading about the time Fick stopped his CO from calling in a Danger-Close artillery strike over his men's heads and then faced the possibility of disciplinary action. Brad had to admire his guts for doing that—most officers he had known were only interested in medals or promotion. With a sigh, he turned to give the laptop back to Ray when he found him reading over his shoulder.

At least that explained why Fick wasn't fazed about being tied up. This was nothing compared to SERE training.

As they sat in silence and Ray continued to read, Brad wondered what it would have been like to be there in Iraq. He'd been Recon too—so had most of the team here, but he'd gotten out after Afghanistan. If he'd stayed in, the possibility existed that Fick might have been his platoon commander.

That thought tugged something inside him and brought up a cacophony of images in his mind. Artillery, muzzle flashes, a stretcher being loaded up to a helicopter. Brad's stomach clenched and he clamped down on his thoughts before they went down that path. Tonight was not the night for reminiscing. He didn't know what was wrong with himself today, but he didn't usually have to try this hard to police his mind this much.

A shuffling noise from the back caught Brad's attention. Fick was awake.

"Speak of the devil," Brad said, voice sharp, suddenly angry with Fick—even if he wasn't exactly sure why. "So you're here because you fancy yourself a hero then?"

"No, not really," Fick replied with an equally sharp voice. "I just saw a man packing a sidearm in a park full of kids. I did what anyone would have done."

Brad shook his head. "Not quite." In his time in Recon he'd had the opportunity to observe a lot of people. Not many would have involved themselves in something like this—non even ex-Recon officers. The smart ones would have turned a blind eye and run. "And you thought you'd take us on?"

Nate shrugged and worked on getting a kink out of his neck.

"Fucking officers. Always rushing in without thinking things through." Brad went back to trying to fix the circuit board, but he could feel Fick's eyes burning a hole in the side of his face. Fine. Chances were Fick wasn't an idiot. Brad put down his equipment, got up and went around back, crouching down in front of him.

It was even darker in the back and it felt strangely intimate crouching down next to him.

"Then what would you have done?" Brad asked, leaning forward and letting his breath hit Fick against the side of his face. "If you'd taken me down, there was still Ray to worry about, not to mention a park full of kids. What if Ray hadn't been above taking a few hostages?"

Fick angled his face toward him so he could look Brad in the eyes. Again, Brad was surprised to see little fear there. "I told my sister to get as many people out of the park as possible without causing a panic. I just didn't want you getting away before the police came. Why do you care, anyway? You have me and I obviously haven't deterred you from your mission."

So that explained the park emptying out. Brad marveled at how quickly the situation had unraveled into a goat-fuck. If he'd just been paying more fucking attention and hadn't spilled the ice cream in the first place, they wouldn't even be in this situation.

"So, she knows you're missing and has probably called the cops?" Brad said sitting back on his heels.

Brad was still close enough he could see the flush creep across Fick's cheeks. It made him feel hot and claustrophobic.

"Fuck," Brad muttered, under his breath. He stood up to try and put some distance between them but it wasn't enough. "Ray, can you handle our boy scout for a moment? I gotta take a piss."

Ray gave him a mock salute and Brad quickly exited the vehicle.

Leaning against the truck and taking a deep breath, Brad tried to refocus. The cold night air helped. For all that the day had been hot and humid; the night was quite the opposite. Bundling up all the extraneous thoughts he had about Fick, his doubts about leaving the Corps and the guilt he felt about fucking things up today, he pushed them back into the corner of his mind he reserved for pointless meanderings.

A large rat darted across the alleyway and disappeared in the shadows. Brad slowed his breathing and listened—he could still hear it scurrying around as it moved away from his position. He focused on the rat and let his inner calm return. This was a job and he was a professional. Everything else could wait for some quiet night when he had nothing else to do, which wasn't likely to happen anytime soon.

Looking at things now, it wasn't hard to see that the best thing to do would be to let Fick go and dump the truck. Both ideas burned—as much as they bitched about it, Mr. Frosty was a part of the team. Not to mention all the time and money they had sunk into the truck to make it functional. But he couldn't see any other way around it.

As for letting Fick go, Brad tried to ignore his disappointment. This mild attraction he had to Fick made no sense. He barely knew the man. Which meant that letting him go was the best course of action. Not only was Fick a liability, but he was also a distraction.

A weakness Brad didn't need right now.

Squaring his shoulders, he opened the door, ready to tell Ray to call Two-Two and ask for a pick-up.

Inside, the interior lights were on making Brad pause as he blinked several times.

"...we had to install some basic body armor around the truck; Brad got some custom made Twaron-reinforced side panels, bulletproof glass for the serving window, and then there was the camouflaged gun turret at the top we had to install. We did it all ourselves, you know. Even the paint job. Naming it Mr. Frosty was Brad's idea—he won't admit it, but he loves a good pun."

Slamming the door as he got in, he fixed Ray his fiercest glare.

"What?" Ray asked, wide-eyed and innocent.

"Could we please not give away anymore intel to our hostage? I'd like to leave him intact when we drop him off."

"Aw, Brad. You're such a softie."

Fick, who was still sitting on the floor, looked a little less hostile than he had moments before. The lights showed the dark circles under his eyes and the cut and bruises on his face. He sat up straighter and eyed Brad wearily as he came in.

"Besides," Ray continued, slurping up the remnants of a slushie. "You're gonna tell me to start cleaning her for disposal aren't you? Damn, homeboy. I was really starting to dig her. Aren't you gonna miss her, Brad?"

"I thought you were sick of serving ice cream." Brad raised his eyebrow while going over to the food fridge and poking around. He was starving and now that he had a clear plan in place, it seemed prudent to eat and then start implementing it. Unfortunately, the only things in the fridge were freezer-burned precooked hotdogs, stale nachos and a bag of defrosted French fries.

Okay, so there would be some things he wouldn't miss about Mr. Frosty.

Brad shut the door with disgust as he heard the soft-serve ice cream machine turn on.

"Ray—" Brad started and then stopped. Ray was too busy pouring the soft-serve ice cream directly into his mouth and down his chin to answer.

A knock on the passenger-side door startled everyone. Pulling out his sidearm, Brad trained it on the door as it opened. Ray fumbled around, but within seconds was beside him with his pistol out as well.

"Brad!" Dave McGraw said, poking his head in the van, oblivious to how close he had come to having a few more holes put in it. Brad uncocked his weapon before tucking it back into his holster. McGraw took that as an invitation to come right in. "Good to see you, man. Is this X-Ray? Craig told me you were having some problems with the prisoner, and I thought we'd stop by and give you a hand with the interrogation."

"Oh, for fuck's sake," Ray said, tactfully as ever, catching Brad's eyes and gesturing with his pistol at McGraw. Brad gave him a quick shake of his head, indicating that Ray should not go ahead and shoot him anyway.

Brad moved toward the front of the truck and glancing through the windshield, saw Eric Kocher, the team leader for Three-One, leaning against his Hummer. Eric looked tired, which was understandable if he'd been driving around with his boss. He caught Brad's glance and gave him a sad wave.

Turning back, Brad barely caught McGraw's backswing in time as he tried to land a blow on Fick. "Sir, what the fuck are you doing?"

McGraw sputtered, off-balanced. "He's resisting interrogation and this is time sensitive information we need, Brad. If he doesn't give up the location of his boss, then the Leon cartel hires a new go-to man and we lose our chance."

"This is not X-Ray!" Brad said through clenched teeth, forcing McGraw's attention back on him. To Fick's credit he hardly flinched throughout the whole thing. "He's a civilian we had to secure to contain the scene."

McGraw looked confused, his eyes darting back and forth between Fick and Brad and it was several moments before Brad felt confident letting go of McGraw's arm.

"Fuck, Brad. You need to learn how to communicate better with the rest of the teams. We just wasted valuable time coming over here when we could have been infiltrating the Laundromat. It looks like they were literally trying to launder their money through there."

Brad counted to ten in his head. "You know, sir, if you hurry, you can probably still get there before the rest of your team."

That seemed to get McGraw back on track because he brightened up and turned towards the door. "You're right. Good thinking. I'm sure Eric's eager to get in on the action. At least we can shut down the operation in this city so that the kids can enjoy their parks again."

McGraw bounded out the truck and over to his Humvee.

"Eric's not going to forgive you for that," Ray said as they watched Bravo Three-One get back in the Humvee. Brad nodded and gave Eric an apologetic smile before turning away from the window.

"You guys are hunting the Leon cartel?" Fick's eyes were wide.

"No," Ray said, opening a can of maraschino cherries and digging in with his fingers. "Just Dave is. Dave McGraw. M-C-G-R—"

"That's enough, Ray," Brad said interrupting him. "Why don't we just hand Fick a detailed O-Plan while we're at it."

"Look. If we're going to be made, I'd rather the public have more information about certain key individuals. Like McGraw. Schwetje. Griego maybe. If we could, say, have their resumes leaked, they'd probably have to consider early retirement. Think what that could mean! The average IQ of this operation would be tripled."

"It would also mean that we've failed our mission," Brad said, annoyed and exhausted. He wasn't in the mood for this.

Suddenly there was the loud and distinctive sound of squealing tires and rapid bursts of machine gun fire.

Ray leaned over and flicked a switch, killing the interior lights. Letting Ray hop into his seat first, Brad quickly followed, taking his rifle out from under the seat and scoping out the situation on his thermals.

"Hitman Two-One, this is Three-One. We're under fire. Two tango victors have approached from the south and are blocking the alley—" Eric's voice came through Brad's bluetooth loud and clear.

"Roger Three-One, we're Oscar Mike. Continue suppressive fire," Brad replied. The truck rattled as shots ricocheted off and Ray maneuvered into a three-point turn.

Brad pulled up the GPS and scanned the area to the north. "Ray, there's a loading yard up ahead and that should connect back to a road."

Ray was silent as he sped along, trying to focus his NVGs. "I see it, Brad. But there's a fence in the way."

"You're gonna have to ram it."

"Roger that."

"I'm gonna be on the fifty cal," Brad said, grabbing his rifle and pulling himself out of his seat. Bracing himself against equipment, walls and ceilings as the truck rattled along, he got to the back and tugged Fick to his feet. With a swift movement, he produced the KA-BAR from his belt and slit the flex-cuff.

"If they're here, it's because they're under the same impression that Captain America was. They think you're their man." He slapped his M4 into Fick's hands, then grabbed Fick by the arm. "Don't think you can kill us and they'll rescue you. They'll think you're a loose end now and want you dead. If you want to live, help us get away. You have my word, I'll release you after."

Fick nodded and Brad was about to point him toward the front of the truck when Ray hit the fence.

The impact threw Brad forward so that he slammed Fick against the freezer, sandwiching the rifle between them. Brad sucked in his breath and when he looked up, Fick's face was only inches from his own.

Brad's world narrowed to the small space between them. Fick was surprised—his mouth hanging slightly open and his pupils dilated. It was different than the anger he'd been sporting all evening.

A second later it was over—the engine on the truck revved up again, shattering the moment. Reluctantly, Brad pushed them off the freezer, catching himself when he was still holding Fick's arm for support. "Sorry," he mumbled, letting his hand drop to his side.

To Brad's surprise, Fick met his eyes and didn't immediately step away. Instead, he gripped the rifle and gave Brad a nod. "Let's do it."

Fick turned and slid into the passenger seat, rifle pointed out the window looking for targets. Brad took a deep breath. His body was humming with adrenaline—he couldn't get away from it. He slammed his hand on the release button for the turret a little harder than necessary. He could still feel the imprint of Fick's body pressed against his.

The fake roof fell away with a whir, revealing the fifty caliber machine gun mounted to the top the truck. Putting on his NVGs, Brad slipped his foot into the harness that had come down and hoisted himself up into the nighttime sky.

The wind was fierce, but nothing beat the bird's eye view for increasing one's situational awareness. Zipping around, he brought his sight over to the truck chasing them and Three-One.

"Three-One, I only see one victor in pursuit," Brad said into his headset.

"The second victor broke off one mike ago."

"Roger," Brad responded and then swiveled around to check their flanks. Sure enough, from his position he could see the other vehicle zooming down a parallel lane at their nine o'clock.

"Stay Frosty Ray, but I think that second victor's gonna try and cut you off."

"Roger that." Ray said in a clipped voice.

Sighting in the target, Brad fired off twenty rounds into the pursuing victor. The bullets hit the side with little effect.

He adjusted so that he was firing across the vehicle's path, shattering the windshield before his machine gun jammed. "Fucking shit—" Brad cursed under his breath. He counted to five, pulled the bolt back, released and tried to fire again. Nothing.

"Shit. Fifty cal is jammed," Brad said into the radio while pulling back the bolt and opening the cover. He pulled out the belted ammunition and could see a cartridge jammed in the bottom of the receiver. "Fuck. Fifty cal is out. Ray, I'm switching to the SAW."

Sliding down and out of the harness, he moved to the serving window, grabbed Trombley's SAW from under the counter, opened the window and took up position.

Scanning the truck's nine o'clock, Brad spotted the target two rows over between breaks in shipping containers. The enemy victor was slowly creeping ahead of them, even with the damage they'd taken. Brad got off a few more shots as they sped down the alley but it didn't stop them.

A row of double high containers came up, blocking the enemy vehicle from sight and Brad had a sinking feeling. They were coming up blind toward the end of their row and it was a race to see who got there first.

It turned out to be the other vehicle.

Brad saw them when they rounded the corner, tires spinning as they finished their U-turn. Then they were headed on a collision course directly toward them.

Ray slammed on the brakes and Brad felt them yawing left. He only had a second to throw himself away from the window before Mr. Frosty continued its course, tipping over as their forward momentum piled them into the other vehicle. The impact threw Brad violently against the ceiling. Something hit his head as glass shattered and metal screeched as it twisted together and spun them around, slipping and sliding until eventually they came to a stop.

There was a millisecond of silence.

"Ray!" Brad shouted over the ringing in his ears when he'd regained his senses. He grabbed his aching head. It was dark in the back and he could barely make out all the damage around him. Mr. Frosty was lying on its side, but most of the impact seemed to have occurred toward the rear. The back was crumpled and bashed in places.

Brad took a quick inventory of his own injuries. He was scratched and bruised from being tossed around, but the bolts had held on the internal equipment, so he had avoided being crushed by the freezer or worse. Ray's wrench lay by his feet which was what must have hit him in the head. Brad touched the lump forming above his right eye. He'd live.

Discarding the SAW, Brad picked up Walt's M4 that was still in the freezer and made his way around the boxes of supplies some of which were still being held in place by ties, though leaking syrup everywhere.

There was a groan from the front.

"Ray?" Brad called out again as a sliver of panic flooded his chest. Maybe his assessment had been wrong—maybe there was more damage up front. He lunged forward as quick as possible and hoisted himself up between the two front seats.

"He's okay," Fick replied, trying to pick himself up after having landed on Ray. Seatbelts had been a low priority when designing the truck. Fick tried to grab the seat for leverage and then groaned and pulled back his hand. Turning it over, Brad saw it was covered in blood. There was a chuck of glass in his palm, barely illuminated by the light post outside. Before he could offer his assistance, Fick reached over, pulled it out and tossed it aside.

"That's better," Fick said with relief as Ray let out a groan.

"This isn't over," Brad said, offering Fick a hand up. Fick took it with his good hand, grabbing the rifle with the other. As for Ray, he looked beaten up as well—there were minor lacerations on his face from the broken window and a nasty cut along his cheek. Brad grabbed his discarded apron that happened to be close by and handed it to Ray. "Sit tight and put pressure on your cheek, Ray. We'll take care of this."

Behind them, Three-One and the other vehicle were still in pursuit a few rows over, shots ringing out as chatter on the radio indicated that Eric almost had them cornered.

"You good to go?" he asked Fick. When Fick nodded, Brad pointed to the passenger-side window that was directly above them.

Brad climbed up, careful to step on the side of the driver's seat and braced his other leg against the dash as Fick moved over to give him some room. The space was small and not meant to be occupied sideways like this. "I'll give you a lift," Brad offered.

Fick raised his eyebrow giving Brad a small smirk, then using the passenger-side seat, scrambled up through the widow. When Fick was through, he poked his head down at Brad.

"I can give you a hand," Fick offered instead.

Brad rolled his eyes. Lifting his rifle through the window first, Brad grabbed the door frame and lifted himself through it. If Fick wanted to prove something, Brad wasn't going to turn down the challenge. "I'm good thanks."

They dropped to the ground and ducking behind the upturned wheels, they peered over to get a visual on the guys chasing them.

Brad spotted them on foot, trying to come around from the other side of the truck. Catching Fick's attention and putting fingers up to his eyes and signaling in the direction he'd seen them go, Fick nodded and followed as Brad moved toward the other end of the truck. Brad scanned the containers blocking them and saw a possible way they could cut them off. Together, he and Fick ran toward the nearest container, crouched low as they rounded the corner and brought their rifles to the ready.

The two men scattered as Brad and Fick opened fire. Brad's target went down, blood pouring down his thigh. Brad ran up to him and brought the butt of his rifle down on the side of his face. The man's head dropped onto the gravel, unconscious.

Taking off in the direction he'd seen Fick go, Brad raced down the row, listening for the crunch of gravel and occasional shots ringing out. Brad caught a glimpse of movement and raced full-speed across another row, catching up with them as Fick cornered the man in a dead-end. The man whipped around, pistol in hand, and Fick didn't hesitate. He put three shots in the man's chest, taking him down.

Breathing hard, Brad closed the space between them just as Fick lowered his rifle. "Nice shooting."

The evening was eerily quiet now. Fick went toward the man and flipped him over with his foot. No doubt about it, the man was dead. With a heavy sigh, Fick picked up the man's pistol and handed it to Brad. "What do you want to do with him?"

"Leave him for now," Brad said after listening in to his head piece. "Three-One's disabled the other vehicle and Two-Three is on their way here to help us clean up. We might be able to get some intel from the guy I took down."

Slowly, they made their way back to the ice cream truck. "You okay?" Brad asked as they came up on it.

Fick gave him a tight nod and then handed back the M4. "I just fucking killed a guy."

Brad slung the SAW over his shoulder so he could get a good hold on the M4. "You were in Iraq. I'm sure you shot someone before."

Fick was silent for while. Then he cocked his head to the side and answered. "That was different. That was war."

"So is this," Brad said, grabbing hold of Fick's arm and stopping them. Fick's jaw was clenched shut, tension visible all over his face. This was turning into a royal mess and Brad didn't even know where to start unfucking it. He settled for a bit of honesty because fuck, Fick already knew about the Leon cartel. "These guys are preying on kids, getting them hooked on crack before they're even in high school. You did those kids a favor."

Fick met his eyes and for a second, Brad felt like he was being judged, felt like he was being measured up to god knows what standard, but for some reason, he didn't want to fall short. He straightened his shoulders and stared back. Fuck if he was going to apologize for anything.

Assessment made, Fick shook loose of Brad's hand and started walking back toward the truck.

Meanwhile, Ray had gotten out, found the unconscious man Brad had left on the ground, and was dragging him toward the truck. Ray didn't look too hot himself, blood still trickling down his face. "What the fuck happened back there?" Ray asked.

"The fucking fifty-cal jammed," Brad said, eyeing Mr. Frosty. It was in rough shape but they'd need to get it back on four wheels before he could make a proper assessment. Oddly enough, he realized he didn't want to see the truck go. Something in Fick's face had changed and Brad didn't think they were in danger of being turned in any more.

"Fuck," Ray muttered as he dropped the man's arms, making his head bounce back in the gravel. "I thought Encino Man gave us LSA. Didn't Walt fix her up?"

Brad shrugged. "He tried, but the LSA was all separated. It was a fucking mess."

Just at that moment, Three-One pulled up and Captain America hopped out, running toward them and waving his rifle around in what was probably meant to be a war cry.

Brad stared as McGraw raced up to the unconscious man.

"Get down! Get down you fucker or I'll fucking shoot you. You don't know who you're messing with here. Don't move or I'll fucking kill you."

"The other car is toast," Eric said, coming up to them as well.

They stared at McGraw a few more minutes, watching him stab the ground around the man's head, yelling at him to stop faking unconsciousness and to wake up and tell them where his leader was.

"Should we stop him?" Ray asked, holding his head and Brad noticed that the whole other side of Ray's face was covered in cuts.

He pulled Ray toward the truck and first-aid kit. "I think it's best to let him get it out of his system. Come on, let's get you patched up."

Two-Three's tow truck showed up a few minutes after that, Doc hopping out and coming over while Lovell got to work hooking up Mr. Frosty and righting her up again.

"What the fucking hell, Brad?" Doc said, surveying the damage around him.

Brad shrugged. "For some reason, McGraw thought X-Ray was with us and came to interrogate him. That information must have also been leaked to the cartel because they came to the party as well."

"Stupid fucking in-bred shit-for-brains officers. Where do they find these fucking retards? It's bad enough they routinely compromise our missions, but now they almost got two teams fucking killed with their utter incompetence. It's disgusting." When Doc was done, he shook his head and started his assessment of Ray's injuries.

"We got orders from Hitman to tow everything back to HQ," Lovell said, coming over when Mr. Frosty was hooked up. "We can take someone in the back—"

"Person should come with me," Doc said, putting some gauze on the wound. "I'll have to stitch him up and I want to make sure he keeps some pressure on the wound."

Brad nodded, looking to Eric to see if he could fit the rest of them in. It was only then that he noticed that Fick was nowhere to be seen.

Eric seemed to realize this at the same time. "Shit. Want me to try and track him down?"

Brad was surprised at the disappointment he felt. It had felt good working with Fick—they'd read each other so easily during the firefight—it had actually felt natural working side by side with him. Brad grimaced.

Fuck it. Of course, Fick wasn't going to stay with them, he was being held against his will.

"No," Brad said to Eric. "I told him I would let him go after this. Now seems like as good a time as any. Let's just sterilize the scene and get the fuck out of here. Hopefully he'll wait a few minutes before bringing the cops down on our asses."

 


Warehouse, Outskirts of Boston, MA

Five hours later, the sun was up and it was a new day for most people. Not for them. As Brad pulled apart his M4, he wondered how badly he would damage the bolt assembly if he whipped it at Ray's head.

"I don't want, anybody else. When I think about you, I touch myself, ahhhh ahhhhh..." Ray's disembodied voice crooned from under the truck.

Fortunately for Ray, Walt tipped the odds in his favor by interrupting.

"What happened, Brad?" Walt asked depositing his bag at the side of the truck and running his fingers over the bullet holes that now decorated the side of Mr. Frosty. They were in their warehouse—a converted furniture distribution center that served as their official headquarters for the operation. Everyone was making the necessary repairs to the fleet and regrouping.

"Fifty-cal jammed," Brad said in a clipped tone. He was getting a little tired of repeating himself.

Walt put his hands up in defense. "Don't look at me like that. I showed you the fucking shit Encino Man gave us. I don't know what backward, third-world country he acquired that LSA from, but half of it was congealed and the rest just dripped everywhere. It was totally separated."

"Where the fuck have you been, anyway?" Brad asked, then shrugged and sighed. He didn't need to be yelling at Walt.

Walt dropped to the floor beside him. "Casey Kasem tasked us with tracking down all the customers from the Laundromat today."

Brad's jaw dropped. "Seriously?"

"Yup. We talked to some guys renting a pad three blocks from the park. We talked to five families, three old ladies, a few single moms, a drunk, two hookers and a homeless man who likes to visit the Laundromat to watch the driers spin when he's bored. None of them remember seeing X-Ray before."

"Probably because he used the side entrance and dealt directly with the owners?"

Walt leaned against Mr. Frosty. "Probably. Either way, it was fun. We should do it again some time."

Trombley came over. "Aw. You guys got to fucking shoot people? Why don't I ever get to come along on something fun?"

Ray popped out from under the truck with a disgusted look on his face. "Aw, Trombley man, you smell like ass."

"I can't help it, Person. The kids started throwing garbage at me again."

"Well maybe if you didn't look at them like a psycho dog killer, they wouldn't be all over your ass—"

"Children," Brad said, interrupting the argument as he spotted Schwetje walking between vehicles. Schwetje had his head buried in a clipboard, and banged into Two-Two's side-view mirror. Griego followed close behind like a dog walking with his master. Enough was enough. Brad jumped up and went after him. "Sir!"

Schwetje looked up from his papers and gave Brad a small smile. "Hey, Brad. Good job capturing that guy. I'm just working on the next stage of the plan for you guys and Group Three."

"Well, that's what I wanted to talk to you about. Everyone in Group Two needs meals, most of us haven't eaten in twenty-four hours. Also, I've gone over to the supply guys; we need a new piston rod for the front-right suspension but they need your okay to order one."

Espera joined them with a list of requests as well. "Sir. And Two-One Bravo needs more batteries for our PEC-twos and thermals."

Now that Schwetje was cornered, other team leaders started to come towards him as well. Patrick and Lovell ran up waving papers full of supply and administration requests.

Schwetje held up his hand to stop them. "Okay, okay. I know it's been tough without having someone you guys can go to directly, but I can't deal with all these little things right now. Planning for this mission is crucial. You guys will just have to make do with what you've got right now. Once this is done, I'll see about getting what you need."

"Well, what about Greigo," Brad pointed out. "He's in charge of supplies, isn't he? Can't he get this for us instead of sending my men on a wild goose chase?"

Greigo curled his lip in disdain. "I'm in charge of procurement, Colbert. Not inventory. And I was taking the initiative. Something you might want to think of doing sometime."

"And where the fuck did you procure that LSA from then? It looked like it expired ten years ago."

Greigo turned and walked away in a huff, leaving Brad standing there with the rest of the team leaders. They cast a look at one another and then returned back to their spots, empty handed.

Brad went over to Mr. Frosty and sat down with a thud. Walt was busy looking over the fifty-cal and Ray had finally finished his assessment. "We're actually pretty lucky, Brad. I think all we need is a new radiator and the front-right suspension is gone, as I mentioned before, but other than that and some body work, the truck is salvageable. Are you still thinking of scrapping her?"

Brad weighed the options. Maybe it was wishful thinking, but his gut told him Fick wouldn't turn them in. The other option would take them out of the game completely. He shook his head. "It'll take too long to build up a new vehicle. If we have to fix the body work, we'll give her a new paint job while we're at it. How long do you think it will take to get her up and running?"

Ray shrugged. "Twelve hours. We can cut that down to three if you get me some help and parts from supply."

With a nod Brad called out for Trombley, waking him from the nap he'd started to take on the floor. "Trombley. Get up and help Ray. He can show you what to do."

Ray rolled his eyes. "I said help, Brad."

"And swap the fifty-cal out for the Mark-19."

"I doubt it'll jam any less," Walt replied.

Brad nodded. "I know, but Poke's gonna take it. Gabe's got more experience with it, maybe he can make it sing."

Prioritizing everything that had to happen now, Brad made sure his guys were set up in their tasks before going off to find Rudy. If Ray needed parts, he would need Rudy's help to bribe the supply guys.

~~~

"Any chance you can get us a radiator in the next few hours," Brad said twenty minutes later, casually leaning on some crates and dangling an espresso in front of Joe's face.

Drool was starting to pool out of the corner of the supply guy's lips. "Sure, Brad. I think I can scavenge one from somewhere. No problem."

Brad passed Joe the drink, which he practically snatched from Brad's hands. After Joe took a few sips, he unrolled his eyes from the back of his head. Joe was about to run away, nursing his drink when he stopped and reached for a small box sitting off to the side. "Oh, I almost forgot, Brad. Here's the box of 7/16" x 20 lug nuts and wheel locks you requested."

He handed the box to Brad and was off before Brad could say anything. Looking down, Brad turned the box over with a sigh. And he'd actually been hopeful about getting that radiator—hopeful before he remembered the level of competency he was dealing with. There was a reason why they called him Slow Joe Crow.

"Here," Brad said, tossing the box of lug nuts to Ray. "Add it to our barter pile. Someone in this unit wants it, I'm sure."

Ray rolled his eyes. "Oh great. More ballast. Just what we need. You know, I left the Marines because I was promised more freedom, improved efficiency, better equipment and additional money. But I forgot the guy making the promises was an ex-officer. The irony...it burns."

The grinder emitted a high-pitched screech as Trombley started it up, effectively bringing an end to Ray's mumblings. Brad dropped back down on the milk crate he'd been using as a stool and finished reassembling his M4.

Kocher sat down beside him and offered him a box of donuts.

"Where'd you get these?" Brad's stomach growled loudly. Normally he avoided junk food, but right now, his body needed calories more than nutrition.

Eric pointed to Patrick and Reyes. "You know how Patrick likes to fit the cop stereotype. Besides, Reyes was complaining about the donuts spoiling his figure so I did the honorable thing."

Brad laughed and helped himself to one, then handed the box the Walt with a gesture for him to pass it on to Ray and Trombley.

"The stupidity surrounding this unit amazes me. At least back in Recon we had our MREs," Eric said gesturing to the chaos around them.

"Sure, when whole supply trucks weren't being left abandoned by the side of the road."

Eric tilted his head at that. "But I don't get why it's that hard here. Why doesn't Encino Man just let us go to drive-thrus or stop at a local quick-mart? There's one five minutes from here. He trusts us to blend in with the civilians while we're pursing a target, but not to get some fucking food?"

Brad found his water bottle and took a chug trying to swallow past the dough stuck in his throat. His eyes rested on Ray with his legs sticking out of the bottom of the truck again and thought back to the radiator.

"God, we need someone in charge around here who knows their dick from their asshole," Brad said finally. He was sorely tempted to steal the radiator from Schwetje's vehicle, especially if it meant leaving him stranded here. It would only improve their probable success rate for the mission. "I'd settle for a semi-competent platoon leader just so I didn't have to deal with fucking Encino Man anymore."

Eric shook his head. "You mean group leader."

"Group leader, whatever," Brad spit a mouthful of water onto the ground, trying to wash the coating of sugar off his teeth. "Just because Godfather had his fucking thesaurus out one day, doesn't change the fact that almost all of us are Marines, mostly from Recon and that this unit is run like any other military operation. Just because we're so far up the oversight committee's ass doesn't change any of that. Then you get idiots like Schwetje and Greigo, transferring in from Special Activities Division who think they're hot shit because they're in charge and yet have never seen combat operations because their only experience is in political bullshit. Having us report directly to Schwetje is taxing that man's already limited brain capacity. If Godfather wants to run us like a military unit, he'd better pony up and find someone to fill the hole..."

"Sorry to interrupt," said a raspy voice behind Brad that didn't sound sorry at all. Brad snapped his mouth shut and turned around to see Godfather standing behind him. It was really turning into one of those days.

Brad quickly swallowed the last of his words as he felt a flush cross his cheeks. He wasn't sure how much Godfather had heard.

Godfather carried on, letting Brad off the hook. "I understand Bravo has been having some difficulties these past few months and Godfather has been searching for someone to come in and help alleviate your concerns. Brad, I believe you know Nathaniel Fick?"

Brad didn't understand. Of course he knew Nathaniel Fick. That was how today's clusterfuck had started. Brad refrained from using those exact words and just went with a tight grin. "Yes sir. But—"

At that second, Dave McGraw wound his way past a truck and Two-Two's cruiser and came out with Fick in tow.

Brad's jaw dropped.

"There you are, sir!" McGraw bounded up to Godfather, literally dragging Fick behind him. "I was showing our new man around these outstanding facilities you've arranged for our current mission and giving him a run down of the operation. Everyone will be so thrilled to have a fresh face around here, and I can already tell we are going to get along great. We're practically brothers already."

He slapped Fick on the shoulder and gave him a tight, one-armed hug, probably not realizing that this was the same man he'd almost decked in the back of Mr. Frosty less than ten hours ago. Casually, people started to turn around to check out the new scene and as they did, the chatter died down until almost all the eyes were upon them. McGraw carried on unaware, trying to make Fick his new best friend.

Fick, for his part, managed to side-step any further hugs, arm-slaps, and hip-checks while trying to take it all in. Eventually his gaze settled on Brad's.

"Godfather thinks you did an outstanding securing the two captives yesterday," Godfather continued on, speaking louder for everyone's benefit. "They have provided us with great insight into the workings of the Leon cartel. Senior management will be passing their orders on to you shortly, but before we step off, I wanted to bring Bravo-Two something special. I know you men have been working without a leader to guide you and handle your day-to-day affairs, and you have managed well. But it's been brought to my attention, that in order for us to function like a well-oiled machine, you need someone to be your group leader. Well, Godfather has found that someone for you tonight."

Brad's eyes were glued on Fick's. Godfather had found someone to be the new group leader?

No fucking way.

"I understand some of you already met Nathaniel yesterday afternoon; he's taken a very interesting route to join us here, but make no mistake about it. We are lucky to have him on board. You'll be pleased to know he hails from Recon as well and General Mattis can't say shit about it, this time."

Quiet laughter floated around the room.

"I'll be turning him over to you, Brad, to get him up to speed on the intricacies of Bravo-Two. As for you all, be prepared to move out soon. That's it."

Godfather gave them all a nod and left. Out of the corner of his eyes, Brad could see everyone else, glued to their spots, staring at Nate. Whispering started, filling people in on any gossip they might have missed.

McGraw tried to lead Fick away. "So, Nate, why don't I finish showing you around—"

"Thanks, Dave," Nate said, with his eyes still meeting Brad's. "But I know you must be busy making sure everyone in Bravo-Three is ready. I'd better stay here and let Brad fill me in on my group. I understand we're on a tight schedule today."

McGraw hesitated, obviously torn between doing his job and going to check on his group or staying with Nate. Eventually, he wandered away but only after multiple promises to return later.

"What are you doing here?" Brad asked after McGraw had left and speaking had become inevitable.

Nate reached into his jacket pocket and took out a small container, handing it to Brad. "I heard you needed this."

Brad turned it over. It was a can of LSA manufactured this decade. Brad looked back up at him, narrowing his eyes. He had no fucking idea what it meant, no fucking idea why Fick had come back, let alone how he'd managed to get hired by Godfather.

"I may be easy, but I'm not cheap," Brad said, holding the can of LSA toward him. "I thought you were trying to get away from us."

Nate shrugged and started making his way over to Mr. Frosty, leaving Brad holding the LSA.

"The truck's not looking too bad, considering," Nate said when Brad finally reached his side. Ray poked his head out from under the hood and dropped his wrench when he saw Nate.

"Well fuck me gently with a rusty chainsaw. What the fuck are you doing here, Homes?" Ray said, coming over while wiping grease off his hands and onto his shirt. Then he offered one of his hands to Nate.

Nate shook his hand and offered him a smile. "When I got home, I made some calls. Found out that you work for Godfather. I remember hearing about Godfather when I got back from Afghanistan—how he stole all the best men from Recon. It's one of the reasons I was recruited into Recon."

"How about them mouse ears," Ray said shaking his head. "It is a fucking small world after all."

Brad tossed the LSA to Walt as he approached and watched the smile spread on his face when he realized what it was.

"Where'd you get this?" Walt asked in disbelief.

Brad hooked a thumb in Nate's direction who was still laughing and joking with Ray. "Hostage by day, boy-wonder by night," Brad said with a hint of bitterness. He hadn't missed the fact that Nate had ignored his question and then answered Ray's without hesitation. "Be careful. I think they're going to break out in song any minute now."

After Walt left with the LSA, Brad stood there, watching Fick and Ray. An uneasy feeling started to settle in his stomach. Fick had the perfect record—he was an ex-Recon officer—exactly what Bravo-Two needed. As much as Ray believed in his lucky, disgusting, plague-inducing, putrid lucky socks which Brad routinely banished from the truck, Brad didn't believe in luck. People made their own luck. He also didn't believe in coincidences.

Coincidences usually meant someone was up to something.

Just as Brad was making a mental list of people he could call, Poke sidled up next to him. "It's a small fucking world, dawg," Poke said with a slow smile.

Brad arched his eyebrow. "Not you too, Poke."

Poke looked at him in confusion. "I'm talking about Fick. I didn't realize it was that Fick you had kidnapped. We were both in Bravo Company in First Battalion together—different platoons, but still. Shit, man. I sat across from him on our flight into Pakistan."

"Really?"

Poke nodded. "Hey! How'd you get the lug nuts and wheel locks? I put a request in for them weeks ago," Poke said, jumping off topic as he saw the box sitting on a pile of Ray's gear.

Brad waved them at him. "Take them, they're yours. Now what can you tell me about Fick."

Poke grabbed the box and started checking out the parts. "He's smart and knows his shit. He even seemed to care about I had to say. Not many officers listen to the opinions of a lowly Mexican. His platoon liked him, too. I can't believe he's working for us now. Maybe our luck is finally turning around."

"Maybe," Brad said, grinding his teeth at the mention of luck. "Any idea why he got out?"

Poke shrugged, closed the box and looked back up at Brad. "I don't know dawg. I know he had some personal shit going down when we got back from Afghanistan. He had to take leave for a few weeks. But then Godfather came around recruiting and I took the job. I left before he came back."

Brad was left alone in his thoughts after Poke ran off to enjoy the lug nuts. The trouble with intel of any kind was that it often raised more questions than it answered.

 

~~~

"...So this is our big break. Our interrogation of X-Ray confirmed that the annual meeting between the three Leon brothers is happening, tonight in fact, just off the coast of Jersey," Schwetje said. Greigo started handing out packages of maps and orders which Brad instantly reached for. Greigo smirked and handed the papers to Nate instead.

Nate instantly passed them on to Brad, making the smirk on Greigo's face disappear as quickly as it had appeared.

"We've been waiting a long time for this," Schwetje continued, "so I want to go over the crucial details to make sure there are no screw ups. The goal is to make it there as quickly as possible so we can recon the area."

A murmur of cheers went up around the room and even Brad couldn't help but feel a thrill at the idea of finally getting these bastards and maybe, finally, putting this op behind them.

Schwetje put a map on the overhead projector and indicated the route they were to take to the port. "Once we're in the downtown area, make sure you take Eden Street because it's the only direct street going west toward the port. All the other streets are one ways..."

The murmurs changed to whispers of confusion as team leaders and drivers tried to get clarification. Looking down at the map, Brad saw that the actual direction they needed to travel was east. When someone pointed this out, Schwetje flipped the overhead upside down, then over, then settled it back they way he'd had it originally, but instead of looking at it from above, he turned around and looked at the screen. Eventually he conceded that yes, they needed to go east, not west on Eden Street.

Brad glanced out of the corner of his eyes at Nate sitting next to him. Nate's jaw was clenched tightly. Brad leaned over and whispered, "In case you were wondering, this is who we call Encino Man."

Nate hushed him, obviously lost in thought. Then he leaned toward Brad, "It'll take us at least six hours to get there. That's not enough time to set-up a command station, recon the area, get the necessary boats and prepare an assault."

"Especially when half the company is going to get lost following his directions."

Nate pulled a small notebook and started scribbling notes. When Schwetje was done, they went back to Mr. Frosty.

Judging by the hundred-some-odd parts scattered on the floor in their area, Brad didn't think Ray's repairs were going too well.

"Stupid-motherfucking-cheap-ass-built-in-fucking-China-piece-of-shit..."

"What the fuck, Ray?"

Ray popped his head out of the hood, grease smeared on his face and arms. Trombley and Hasser were both working on the back end and they exchanged looks. Ray cursed while ripping a hose out and added it to the collection on the ground. "Bad news, Brad. I thought the truck was overheating because of the radiator problems, but we have a much bigger issue. Cracked engine block."

Brad swore. For once there was no trace of humor on Ray's face. "What do you need?"

"A new engine."

"A new engine?" Brad stared at all the parts. They had an hour before they were supposed to be oscar mike and he didn't think he was going to get a radiator in that time, let alone an engine. He turned to Nate. "Know anywhere we can get a new engine?"

Nate shook his head. "LSA was one thing. I can't work miracles. Isn't there another vehicle you can use? Even if it's not fancy, it's better than nothing."

Ray unlocked a bracket and tossed it on the floor as well. "If we ditch Mr. Frosty, we'll be out of the game. We won't have comms, computers, nothing. We'll be sitting there with our thumbs up our asses, watching everyone else get the bad guys. It fucking figures. We've been on this op for what? Two years? And now we're out?" Ray threw some stray wires out.

"Ray, stop ripping stuff out of the truck!" Brad yelled as he got hit with the wire cutters. "It isn't helping."

"Neither is you standing there watching. I figure if I cut some holes in the bottom we can make like Fred-fucking-Flinstone and Barney. Fucking yabba dabba do."

Nate poked around the debris scattered on the floor. "If you had a new engine, how long would it take you to fix her up?"

Ray just looked at him.

"No, really."

"Fine," Ray said, rolling his eyes. "If a new engine were to just magically show up and I had some decent help, and the proper tools, maybe four hours. Other tasks could happen concurrently and anything else could be fixed on the road, I suppose."

"What if it wasn't the right engine..." Nate trailed off.

Ray eyed him suspiciously. "I don't know. Depends on how different..."

Nate stood up and caught Brad's eye. Brad raised his eyebrow. He had no idea what Nate was thinking.

"Didn't you guys capture a Mustang yesterday?" Nate asked.

Brad nodded slowly. "Yes, but..."

The sound of a wrench hitting the floor was followed immediately by Ray engulfing Nate in a tackle-hug.

"Oh God! You're gonna let us pillage Encino Man's new Mustang? You're fucking awesome, man! Can I marry you now, please?"

"Ray," Brad said with exasperation.

Ray reluctantly let Nate out of his hold. "Whoops, sorry, dude. I forgot you had dibs."

Brad felt a small, involuntary flush creep across his face. "Ray," he said dangerously, but Ray was already heading gleefully back to the truck. He risked a glance again at Nate, but Nate was looking rather amused by the whole thing.

"Is it even possible?" Brad asked him.

Nate shrugged. "Ask, Ray."

But Ray was already singing "Mustang Sally" and ripping more things out from under the hood. Brad scowled. Fick seemed to have no trouble answering Ray's questions, but every time Brad asked him something, he got the runaround. Brad refused to believe for a second that he was jealous of Ray.

"Schwetje has plans for that Mustang," Brad said, not because he cared what Schwetje wanted but because he was trying to be realistic about the whole thing. He was positive there was very little bitterness in his voice. "How do you plan on letting us get our hooks into it?"

"Keep your guys working on the body and tell Ray to strip out the old engine and anything else that probably won't jive with the Mustang's parts. Let me handle Schwetje."

"This is crazy. The Mustang's engine is twice as powerful as the one we have. It'll be like trying to stick a square peg in a round hole."

Nate smiled. "They did it on Apollo 13. Besides, don't worry. The one thing we have an abundance of is duct tape."

 

~~~

 

An hour later, when the rest of Bravo Company was pulling away, Nate dragged Brad to the front entrance to watch their tail lights. Then he grabbed Brad's arm and proceeded to wave it up and down. "Wave Brad. That's Bravo leaving town."

Brad watched Nate, amused and confused, but mostly amused. Nate's eyes were shining and it was hard not to get caught up in his enthusiasm. When the last vehicle had pulled away, Nate said, "Okay Brad. Say hi to your new engine."

Two-Three pulled up in their truck, towing the red Mustang, gleaming in the sun. They rolled into the compound, backing the car up next to Mr. Frosty.

"How the fuck did you do that?" Brad asked in awe. As soon as Lovell had it in position, Manimal was out, wrench in hand, dropping it down while Ray ran over and started humping the fender.

Nate smiled mysteriously and Brad was getting prepared for another vague answer when Nate expanded. "About five minutes ago I told Schwetje I needed to drive in a separate vehicle because I couldn't hear myself think around Ray. Since there was no time, he was inclined to let me borrow his Mustang when I suggested it as a solution. Fortunately, Two-Three had already agreed to tow it as part of the convoy..."

Despite himself, Brad smiled at the sheer genius. "Not to get homoerotic about this, but I could kiss you, sir."

When the Mustang was on the ground, everyone jumped into action, and it was only then Brad noticed that Nate's hand was still on his arm. The contact lasted only another second before Nate was off, bounding into the foray as everyone swarmed the vehicle, eager for pillage like the Vandals sacking ancient Rome. The absence of pressure was notable, and that in of itself was disconcerting.

Brad let his eyes follow Nate's movements, watched as he got swallowed up by the crowd, and then moved back and forth between the truck and the Mustang, directing the flow of work naturally. He still had no fucking clue how Nate Fick had landed on his doorstep, or why he'd decided to come back and help them after he got away, but maybe for now, it didn't matter. If this whole op was a day away from completion, they would have plenty of time to figure it out later.

 


Somewhere around New Haven, CT

“If you think I'm sexy and you want my body, come on sugar let me know...If you really need me, just reach out and touch me...“

Ray had the window open, letting in the evening air as they raced down the interstate and was belting out tunes at the top of his lungs. They were doing at least thirty miles per hour faster than Mr. Frosty's previous top speed and making good time. In fact, the entire atmosphere in the truck was down-right energized.

Walt had taken Brad's seat up front and was singing along. Even Trombley was joining in on the chorus.

Brad forced a tight smile onto his face as he turned back to the map he'd laid out on some boxes. Most of the extraneous ice cream and dessert supplies had been left at the warehouse and Mr. Frosty was now fully loaded with ammunition, communication equipment and other supplies actually relevant to their job description. Ray's Pewter Penis had been extracted from the syrup box it had punctured, and was back in its rightful spot with all of Ray's other chachkas. The fixed overhead light gave some illumination in the back.

Brad checked his watch. If his estimates were right, they should make it in time to provide back up. Barely.

"Well, they're in a good mood," Nate said next to him.

Brad could feel Nate looking at him, but he kept his eyes firmly on the map, trying to plot the route most likely to get them to the rendezvous point in time.

"Here, Brad," Ray interrupted and Brad put down his pencil with a sigh. "This one's for you—My boyfriends back and you're gonna be in trouble, hey-la-day-la, my boyfriends back!“

Walt snickered and Brad glared at them until they both stopped. Out of the corner of his eyes, he could see Nate's face scrunched up in confusion and he turned to Brad for clarification. Perfect. Exactly what he needed.

"Ray likes to think he's editorializing," Brad explained. "But if that were true, he'd be entertaining us with Madonna's gay-ass song about a virgin fucking a hairy beast to express his secret, pent-up desire for bestiality."

Ray took the jibe with a snort and Trombley got all grossed out about the idea of fucking animals.

"You don't have to be an animal to fuck like an animal, Trombley," Ray said.

"You mean like doggy style?"

"No, Trombley. Not like doggy style. I'm talking about hardcore embodiment of the furry lifestyle, and rutting alongside someone who spiritually identifies as a squirrel. Now that's some fucking animalistic sex."

Brad tried really hard not to listen and went back to his map.

Unfortunately, Nate wasn't listening to it either. "So what's the problem, Brad?"

Brad had no problem. The truck was fixed, the team was back together and he had a platoon commander again. On top of all that, his new platoon commander was apparently a goddam superhero.

Nate sat back on his heels. "You seemed happy enough back at the warehouse."

Brad swallowed a grimace. It was true. He'd let his guard down because he'd been caught up in the fun of pillaging the Mustang. It had been like the first few months when he joined Godfather's operation. Excitement had hung in the air as everyone threw themselves into their new roles, determined to see how far they could push themselves and their equipment. But like before, reality had to set in eventually.

And the reality was that every time Brad looked at his new platoon commander, he felt like being less than professional. His palms got sweaty and he felt an unrelenting desire to reach over and touch him. What he would do once he touched him, Brad hadn't quite worked out yet, but throwing him on the floor and grinding down against him seemed to be where his mind was inclined to go.

So maybe there was a problem.

Nate Fick was his boss now and Brad had a job to do. An important job that couldn't afford a distraction of this kind.

"Nate," Ray called out with one hand wrapped around the radio handset, apparently on a first name basis with him now, "Godfather's on the hook for you."

Nate went forward and took the handset. "Two-Actual. Go ahead."

The truck quieted down as they all tried to listen in. Godfather's raspy voice was too quiet for Brad to hear details but it was obvious from the tone and the look on Nate's face that something was up.

"We're still two hours out, over," Nate said after a while.

There was more raspy talking on the other end.

"Yes, sir." Nate passed the handset back to Walt who hooked it back up to the consol. "Ray, you need to push her as fast as you can. We're on our own on this one. Walt, let Two-Three know that we're going to be picking up speed. The meeting is in two hours. We need to get there as soon as we can."

"What happened?" Brad asked. "The rest of Bravo should have been there by now."

Nate shook his head. "I don't know. Godfather didn't fill me in on the details. We have no time for anything. We just have to get to the yacht and secure it."

Brad whipped out his cell phone, put it on speaker and called Poke.

"Dawg, you won't believe this shit." Poke's voice along with all its incredulity floated through the cell phone.

"What happened? Where are you?"

"You know the fuck-up with the driving directions during the briefing?"

Brad felt his jaw tighten and a sinking feeling start in his stomach. He had visions of Bravo lost in some hick, back-alley town, being detained by redneck whisky tango retards interested in all their shiny toys. "Yes."

"Well, Hitman didn't want to risk anyone getting lost, so he ordered all the victors to drive in convoy the whole way there."

Brad almost laughed. Apparently the utter stupidity people were capable of still had the ability to surprise him "You're kidding."

"I couldn't make this up if I tried, dawg."

Because each of the teams had such distinct vehicles, their effectiveness in blending in with the surroundings hinged on them travelling alone. "What happened?"

Poke sighed. "Cops ran the plates on Two-Two's cruiser, then pulled the whole convoy over to find out what the hell was going on. We were in the lead and managed to slip away. We stayed in the vicinity for a while but then more cops showed up and started arresting everyone."

"Oh, for fuck's sake!"

"Ray..." Brad started but was interrupted by Nate shushing everyone.

"I'm assuming Godfather can't just make a call and get them released?" Nate asked the group.

Brad shook his head. "He can, but it's not like the government gave us a get out of jail free card. It'll take some time."

Nate bit his lip and then spoke back into the phone. "Poke, we're gonna need you at the rendezvous point. What's your ETA?"

"Another fifty mikes."

Nate looked at his watch. "Get there as soon as possible. You're going to have to recon the area and set up a command post. I'll call Godfather and let him know and then call you back with more info as soon as we have a plan."

When the call was disconnected, Nate turned to them and asked, "So we won't have boats. Okay, let's start tossing out ideas. What's the next best way to neutralize a yacht in open waters?"

"Well that's easy," Ray drawled out from the front, still laughing and shaking his head. "Either above or below and we ain't got no helicopters in this truck."

Nate looked over at Brad and nodded. "Then let's do it. I wouldn't normally presume to tag along, but we're short on people. Just let me know what you want me to do."

Streetlights flickered past the windows as they drove by a service station and then receded away. Already, a list of tasks that needed to be done was forming in Brad's head. He returned Nate's nod. It wasn't ideal to have officers in the field, but Nate was right. They needed as many hands as possible on deck.

~~~

With a rough plan in place, Brad went over to the soft-serve ice cream machine. Unlatching the sides, he hit the release button which swung the ice cream machine up, revealing SCUBA gear stowed inside.

Nate came up beside him. "How does the ice cream machine still work if the insides are storing your gear?"

Brad shrugged, more aware of the confines of the truck than ever. "We make do. Besides, the canisters came loose when we stored them under the counter and Trombley tripped over them. Nothing makes me more nervous than Trombley tripping while carrying his SAW so we jimmy-rigged this set-up."

"Nice."

"So, do you remember how to use a rebreather?" Brad asked, putting some distance between them after picking up the scrubber canisters and the jug of CO2 absorbent and laying them down on the counter. Then he leaned over and grabbed some gloves and dust masks, handing a set to Nate, along with an empty canister.

"Vaguely," Nate said putting the gloves on, seemingly oblivious to the discomfort he caused Brad when he stepped into his personal space. "It's been a year. Remember, I just came back from the desert."

Inhaling deeply, Brad tried to hide his grimace. If Nate was the least experienced diver then it would make sense for him to pair up with Brad. Part of him had been dreading this possibility, since it first occurred to him, while the other part of him exalted in it now. "Okay, then you'll be with me. Trombley, take over driving for Ray, I want him on electronics. Walt, I need you back here."

Brad handed Walt another canister when he got in the back, and then pulled out a laminated paper. Thankfully, there was enough to do that there was no time to dwell on any frivolous issues. "Walt, you're gonna prep Ray's equipment as well and the two of you will make a team. Here's the pre-dive checklist. After we fill the scrubber canisters and attach them to the lungs, we'll run through this list of checks; valves, hoses, and monitors. Assuming everything works on the first try it'll take us forty-five minutes to finish prepping the equipment."

Nate glanced at his watch. "Then let's hope everything works on the first try."

 

***

"Nate, we've got problems," Ray said after they'd been working in silence for an hour.

Nate put down his completed pack and went over to the workstation Ray had set up behind the driver's seat. Brad quickly joined them. The overhead light up front was turned off to give better contrast on the monitors, as well as to avoid drawing attention to their vehicle on the road. Between the dark, the three laptops connected to various receivers and the three of them, it was pretty cozy. Brad had no choice but to lean over Nate's shoulder to see, inhaling the scent of Nate's distinctive woodsy aftershave.

Ray tapped a screen which showed a paused image from a surveillance camera. "I just finished analyzing our tapes for the last forty-eight hours. This was taken when we stopped the Mustang. Remember him?" Ray pointed to the fuzzy image of the neighbor who had come out asking what was going on, "He's a low level operative in the Leon cartel."

"Then they knew we'd captured him! Why didn't we pick this up sooner?" Nate demanded.

Ray threw his hands up. "The facial recognition program is set up to start comparing faces with the highest level operatives known to us. Let's just be happy it picked it up now."

"So this is a trap?" Walt asked, joining them, pushing Brad even further into Nate's personal space. "They knew the Mustang driver would talk?"

Nate looked over his shoulder and met Brad's eyes. "Why didn't command pick up on this?"

Brad arched an eyebrow but Ray beat him to it. "Because it's living proof that Darwin was a crackpot, that natural selection is a lie perpetrated by Satan-worshipping fucknuts and that chaos rules the mother-fucking world."

Nate stared at Ray with his mouth hanging slightly open.

"What Ray is trying to articulate is that command doesn't know their left nut from an ingrown toenail," Brad said, translating Ray's bullshit with ease.

Squeezing out of their tight circle, Nate hopped into the front seat and picked up the radio. "Godfather, this is Bravo-Two actual, over."

"Two-actual, send. Over."

Nate picked up the handset so that the conversation was no longer being broadcast on speakers and relayed the intel they'd just picked up. There were long stretches of silence where Brad tried to guess Godfather's side of the conversation, but he didn't have to try to hard—the expression on Nate's face said it all.

They were still going ahead with the plan. When Nate reiterated the fact that it was likely a trap, his face darkened even further.

"Yes, sir," he said finally, and hung up shortly thereafter.

Sitting there, Nate stared out the front of the truck. Walt got the hint and went back to work and even Ray was smart enough to keep his mouth shut and started typing away on his keyboard until only Brad was left, watching Nate as he watched the road.

Squeezing between the two front seats, Brad turned his back on Trombley driving to give them some measure of privacy.

"They want us to carry on?" Brad asked in a low voice.

Nate nodded.

"What else?"

Nate glanced at him, then glanced back at the road. "Command had already analyzed our tapes. They've had birds on the AO all this time and want us to go ahead. They've alerted the coast guard to block off the entrance into the bay and want us to swoop in and apprehend the owners."

"The cartel isn't stupid. They're going to know all this."

Nate was silent awhile. When Ray started hassling Walt about something, Nate finally continued. "Godfather intercepted a phone call between two of their members. They know that most of the company is being detained by police. He thinks that because of this, they won't be expecting us."

Brad almost snorted. "What do you believe, sir?"

Nate gave him a look that Brad was starting to recognize. It was measuring, as if trying to figure out why Brad kept using the honorific, and maybe trying to figure out if Brad was using it sarcastically. "I don't know. Maybe they're right, Brad. Maybe half of Bravo getting arrested is the red herring we need. Godfather's the one with the intel, we shouldn't question his decisions. We don't have the big picture."

Brad held his tongue. His own naive belief in Godfather's omnipotence had died a painful death three months after he'd joined this operation when he'd watched his platoon commander get shot because of bad intel. He wanted to grab Nate by the shoulders and shake him. He was supposed to be smarter than this.

"It's okay, Brad," Nate said, apparently reading his mind, "We can do this. Poke's already there, reconning the area and I have the utmost faith in your abilities. Get us on that yacht, we'll check it out and find these son of a bitches before they do any more harm."

"Yes, sir." There wasn't really anything more he could say. Brad wasn't sure if he was happy about Nate's faith in him or not. He turned to go when Nate caught his arm.

"We're good, right?" Nate asked, lowering his voice even more so that it was impossible to miss his meaning.

Except that Brad was the master of avoiding things he didn't want to talk about. He kept his face blank. "Yes, sir."

"No, really, Brad. Cut the 'sir' crap. If we're going into this, I want to know what's wrong." Nate still hadn't let go of Brad's arm and his grip was tight.

With nowhere to go, Brad weighed the pros and cons of having this conversation. If they could lay down the ground rules, maybe he could find some way of working with Nate without going crazy. It was a toss up if the risks outweighed the benefits. Brad squared his shoulders and dropped his voice as well, though Ray had started singing again, Trombley was yelling at him and the noise level in the truck was back to its usual level.

"You may have gotten a certain impression from Ray, about me."

Nate's forehead creased. "What impression would that be?"

Brad stared at him hard, trying to figure out if Nate was being diplomatic or oblivious. He wagered on diplomatic. "I just want you to know that I would never complicate an op or our working relationship by initiating anything inappropriate between us."

There was silence for a few seconds, Nate studying him before finally speaking. "Ah. Well, it's okay, Brad. I don't swing that way."

Brad swallowed hard, Nate's answer not the one he'd been expecting.

"So we're good?"

"We're good," Brad replied, still shocked. It wasn't often that people surprised him, and Nate seemed to be doing so constantly. The eye contact, the random physical contact...It hadn't even occurred to Brad that maybe this was nothing except a weird fantasy in his own head. Brad tried to bury his disappointment, tried to convince himself that this was actually what he'd wanted but it seemed pointless to lie to himself now.

Apparently he was damned if he did, and damned if he didn't and in both cases the situation really fucking sucked.

 


Somewhere around Staten Island, NY

"Hey Brad?"

Brad looked up from the GPS he was programming. Ray and Walt were sitting on the floor eating stale nacho chips and occasionally throwing them at Trombley who was still driving. Nate was staring off into the distance in the passenger seat, lost in his own thoughts. "Yes, Ray?"

"Do you think we can find out if the CIA's been conducting mind experiments for the last fifty years?"

"No, Ray. Probably not," Brad said, sitting back and stretching his neck. Walt was grinning at Ray's non-sequitur, though somehow, Ray himself was managing to keep a straight face. With a sigh, Brad decided to play along. Sometimes it was just easier to let Ray go in the direction he wanted. "Please don't tell me this is about children's television programming again?"

"Nooo," Ray trailed off, innocently, "Okay, yes it is. But look at the facts, Brad. Cookie monster loved his cookies and now there's a diabetes epidemic on our hands. Then, I heard about some guy who found a cipher and used it on the letters and numbers at the end of Sesame Street to find the location of a sugar stockpile in the Soviet Union, big enough to make a million pounds of sugar cookies. How fucked up is that? There are millions of American minds that have been poisoned by blood-sucking-communists."

"You think the Soviets wanted to make us all fat?"

"Maybe," Ray said, obviously getting into it. "It's basic military tactics. It costs more in time and resources to tend to someone who's injured as opposed to burying the ones who are dead. Maybe that's what they've done to us. Made us a nation of obese diabetics who drain billions of dollars in Medicaid, hospital care and repaving of parking lots to make more handicap spots. They're sucking our economy dry. Then there's the fact that they've contributed to the break-up of families by encouraging homosexual tendencies. What if Ernie and Bert made us all gay, Brad?"

Brad's mouth quirked up at the corner. Sometimes it took Ray a while to get where he was going but not today. It was easy to forget that Ray picked up on a lot when he was keeping his mouth shut. Shaking his head, Brad tried to keep his voice light. Walt had moved on to reading over his pre-dive checklist and Brad had no desire to call attention to the actual point of the conversation. "Not all of us, Ray."

Ray met his eyes, his face showing some inkling of dismay. "Really?"

"Really," Brad said, disappointment still curdling in his stomach. It actually felt nice to confide in Ray—he wasn't nearly as retarded as he pretended to be, though it didn't stop Brad from getting his own dig in. "But if you want to blame a yellow and orange puppet for your homoerotic fantasies, I'm not going to stop you. Not everyone on this team is hairy, you know."

A blush crept over Ray's cheeks, rendering him speechless for a second. Brad's eyes flicked over to Walt who was still absorbed in his task and then back to Ray who had shut his mouth and was clenching it tight.

Brad felt a twinge of sympathy for Ray because apparently Ray and Walt's relationship was even more fucked up than Brad's non-relationship with Nate. Walt bit his lip, completely oblivious to everything and Brad decided maybe he was lucky to know where he stood with Nate. Even if he was standing out in left-field, all by himself.

 


Marina in Long Branch, NJ

They boarded the small speedboat in the shadows, Walt taking them out of the dock under the cover of darkness. Brad checked his watch. They had twenty minutes until the meet.

"Okay, Walt, turn the reins over to Trombley, we need to start our checks."

"Why do I always have to stay behind?" Trombley whined as he took over position in the back of the boat.

"Because you're a psycho killer and we can't take you anywhere?" Ray said with a smile that always had a little too much malice in it. Didn't matter much to Trombley as near as Brad could tell.

"Because you like to shoot things," Brad replied a little louder than Ray. "There are more things to shoot at on the surface."

Trombley made a face like he always did when Brad was trying to explain something to him. Some people had to partake in a minimum level of bitching in order to function properly.

Ray smacked Walt on the ass as Walt came forward.

"Make sure your oxygen tanks are open and pressure is set, then initialize your handsets," Brad told them as they settled down next to their partners. Nate was sitting across from him so that their knees were almost touching. The night had gotten chilly and Brad tried to pretend it was just the body heat that had gotten his attention. He turned his master handset on, listening for the beeps and clicks that told him the solenoid and batteries were being tested under load. Then he tested his slave handset while making sure Nate was performing his tests properly.

Nate gave him a nod as everything checked out, then Ray and Walt indicated they were set to go.

Brad looked out at the water. The night was cool and calm. In the distance he could see a ship near the entrance to the harbor and pulled his rifle up to have a look through the scope.

"Poke," Brad called over the small handheld radio they'd brought along, "do you have visual confirmation on the yacht?"

"Affirmative, Iceman," Poke's voice floated back. "There's also another ship three hundred mikes east of the yacht's position."

Brad moved his rifle over, until he spotted the other boat and recognized its shape. "Coast Guard."

"Are you sure?"

Brad had another look. "Hitman assured us they were ready to provide back up."

"Right, 'cause his assurances always works out so well. Do we have comms with them?"

Brad looked over to Ray, but Ray shook his head. "Nope. I even tried Godfather directly. If they're Coast Guard, they're doing their own thing."

"Fucking beautiful. Hopefully, they won't get in our way," Brad replied, looking at the ship again. It was too far away to get a good visual, but it fit the description of one of their ships. It would have to do for now. "We're coming up on the dive point now, Poke. We'll contact you after we board the yacht and neutralize the targets."

"Good luck," Poke responded. "Two-One Bravo, out."

Trombley brought the boat around. They were still sheltered from the horizon by the buildings from the marina, but at least they'd cut some distance.

"Make sure you're on channel sixteen." When everyone had checked their comms, Brad gave them the okay to continue. "Alright, masks on and pre-breathe. We'll dive on my signal."

Everyone slid their masks on; full face masks with mouthpieces attached that allowed them to communicate underwater using ultrasound. Brad grabbed Nate's arm and turned him around, checking Nate's gauges as he breathed. When everything looked good, he turned so Nate could do the same checks on him. Nate gave him an awkward smile and thumbs up that everything was fine.

After several minutes, Brad did a final check to make sure everyone was ready. With a final glance at his watch, he gave them the signal to dive.

~~~

Underwater, everything was silent. Brad always loved the thrill of facing an open ocean, its boundless depths. A dirty harbor wasn't quite the same thing, the beauty and majestic landscape certainly weren't there, but the independence was. There were no distractions from the outside world, just the mission at hand.

"Come with me," Ray's voice had an odd, echoey quality to it coming over the headset but the tune was recognizable. Though that might have been because Brad had heard everything in Ray's repertoire at least several hundred times by now. "My love. To the sea. The sea of love."

Nate swam along next to him and Brad had to take back what he thought about distractions. At least several meters underwater, everything seemed to become more tolerable. Nate gave him a nod and Brad motioned for them to dive deeper. There was more than enough to think about during descent. When they reached a depth of ten meters, the water was almost pitch-black. The light from the moon above gave a diffuse glow, but even then, the water was thick with sand and gasoline pollution and there was very little visibility.

Only because he knew where to look could Brad see the glow from Nate's handset. He turned on his torch, shone it at his hands and GPS unit. "Ready?" Brad asked.

Nate's voice came through slightly muffled. "Lead the way."

The swim was intense. They had to make good time, which meant they had to keep a fast pace, but it was invigorating as well. Nate matched him, never straying more than a few feet, almost daring Brad to push him harder, which Brad was happy to do.

At the half-way mark, Brad made a startling realization. Even breathing hard and with muscles straining, there was a certain comfort in the exertion, in being close to Nate. Working beside him eased a knot that had been building inside Brad for a long time and maybe it was worth it. Maybe always being this close but not being able to touch was a small price to pay for the feelings he was having right now.

He was actually enjoying his job.

Checking his GPS, Brad was surprised to find that they were almost there. As they approached the rendezvous location, Brad pushed all extraneous thoughts into the back of his head. There would be time for them later.

During the ascent, Brad kept going over the plan, going through the mental check list of what they had to do when they reached the surface. They broke the surface at the same time.

The moon was so bright that Brad felt exposed with his head above water. Looking around, he saw another head bob, then another as Walt and Ray approached them from ten meters out.

Brad reached the side of the yacht. It was a gorgeous ship; thirty five feet long with three decks. He pointed to his ear and then to the ship, and made a circling motion with his hand. Ray, Walt and Nate swam out in different directions, checking all sides of the ship. A minute later they returned and shook their heads. No one had heard or seen anything.

He gave his team a nod and they turned off their mouth pieces before attaching their fins to their belt clip. Brad made the appropriate adjustments to his own equipment, fitting the thermal scope on his dual purpose rifle and when everyone was ready, he hauled himself onto the deck of the boat.

Crouching low against the railing, Brad looked about, not seeing anyone. He moved slowly, looking around the cabin toward the main deck.

The deck of this ship was deserted. Brad turned to Nate. "They knew we were coming."

"How?"

Brad shrugged.

"We should still have a look around. If we're lucky, maybe they left something behind."

Adrenaline kicking up a notch, Brad nodded, and motioned to Ray and Walt to take the upper decks. Nate took the cabin while Brad settled against the railing, rifle up and ready.

Everything was quiet, only the lapping of the waves against the hull echoed in the air.

One minute passed. Then two.

Brad looked through the scope, out into the water towards the Coast Guard ship he'd seen earlier. It was still out there, circling. Focusing on the main deck, he noticed several people moving about. Even though the resolution wasn't very clear, especially through his face mask, the movement of the men on board made the hair on the back of his neck stand up.

Something wasn't right. Their movement wasn't that of officials securing an area—they were nervous.

"We need to leave," Brad said quietly over the comms. As he followed the men in the ship with his eyes, he saw their movements becoming more frenzied. They were rushing and Brad could see rifles coming out. "It's a trap."

Ray acknowledged and came sliding down the stairs from the upper deck, throwing himself behind the raised hull near the cabin door just as the bullets started flying.

"Okay Walt," Brad shouted, providing covering fire as Walt descended from the flybridge. Most of the shots were going wide regardless; the men clearly weren't professionals. Walt slid down the stairs, joining Ray when he reached the deck.

"Hitman-Two actual, you need to hurry," Brad said calmly into the radio, never stopping his suppressive fire. He sited a target, fired. Sited another one and fired. His lone rifle picked off targets more effectively than the half a dozen rifles pointed at them.

"I need a minute," Nate replied. "There's—"

Static cut him off and Brad looked around for a possible cause. Sure enough, he could now see more people on the upper deck of Coast Guard ship, one of them carrying an object of some kind. Brad's stomach dropped.

"Get out now!" Brad shouted as Nate came through the cabin door. Walt and Ray already had their air tubes in and fins on and Brad waved at them to jump overboard. "Go! Go!—"

As he turned back to Nate, time slowed down. In the background there was a splash as Ray and Walt simultaneously dove into the water, as Nate started running toward him. Three feet from the cabin, a large orange fireball appeared behind him, growing each microsecond as Nate ran forward, until eventually, it engulfed the whole upper deck. The sound of the explosion hit a second later, speeding everything up to twice its normal speed as the force of the explosion knocked Nate into Brad and sent them both up and backward, over the railing and into the water, in a flash of terrible, horrible white.

After the boom, there was nothing. Just blackness and silence in the water.

Instantly, Brad twisted around so his feet were pointing downward. He had lost his rifle. His mask was flooded and he couldn't see shit, couldn't reach his air tube to plug it back in so instead he concentrated on getting back up to the surface. The next minute was full of kicking and moving his arms around trying to find Nate. A foot from the surface Brad found him, lying motionless in the water. Brad grabbed him, flipping him over as he broke the surface so Nate's face was above water.

The moonlight painted Nate's face white in sharp contrast to the murky water that had flooded his mask. Brad tapped the side to help the water escape.

The rattling of machine gun fire was everywhere adding to the ringing in his ears and pounding in his head.

"Come on, Nate," Brad shouted, flicking Nate's mask to try and get him to wake up. Nate's eyes fluttered open. "You okay?"

For a second Nate started to lash out, panicked and disorientated. Brad kept a firm grip on him until Nate's eyes settled on the burning yacht fifteen feet away and he calmed.

"Ray and Walt?" Nate asked.

"They're fine. I saw them dive. We need to dive as well. Can you make it?"

Nate gave him a nod.

Holding onto each other, they slid their breathing tubes into their masks. There was no time to do checks, no time to make sure everything was functioning properly but Brad could tell right away something wasn't right. Nate's pack was hissing which meant pressurized air was getting out.

"Fuck," Brad swore under his breath. He reached over, closed the valve that connected Nate's intake tube to the rebreather and switched him back to breathing ambient air. "It won't work. Your whole system's probably been contaminated by now. You're going to have to hook into mine."

The spray of the bullets started getting closer.

"Okay...what do we do?" Nate asked.

Brad eyed the approaching boat and weighed the factors. Diving like this was complicated and not without its risks but staying on the surface had even more. He guided Nate around so his back was to him. Holding him close against his chest, Brad hooked in Nate's line so that they shared the same air. "We dive."

With a slight turn of their bodies, they slipped underwater. It was awkward moving like this as Nate learned to time his kicks to match Brad's—they fought against each other more often than not at first, but Nate learned not to put too much power into his movements until he figured out how to work with Brad's.

When they reached eight meters, Brad steadied them, trying to take a reading from his handset, which was next to impossible since he didn't want to let go of Nate. The line they shared wasn't that long, and Brad didn't want to risk one of them pulling in the wrong direction.

Nate took the GPS from Brad. "I'll navigate."

They started to move, again. Brad could see the searchlights from the other ship reflected in the water above them, still too close.

"Bravo Two-One Alpha Papa, respond," Brad called out over the comms after they had found a steady rhythm.

There was no response.

"Bravo Two-One Alpha Papa, I say again, please respond."

There was silence and then static. "—we're here at the extraction point," Ray's voice finally came through. "The boat is gone. I say again, the boat is gone. Walt and I will scout the area for Trombley."

"Roger," Brad acknowledged. "We will regroup at the victor, over."

There was more garbled mumbling from Ray which Brad hoped was an affirmative. The comms were good, but their vertical distances in the water were limited.

"Take us to shore, Nate," Brad said.

~~~

An hour later, Brad helped Nate up onto the dock and then pushed himself up as well. They lay panting on the wood as Brad ripped his face mask off. "You okay?" he asked.

Nate rolled over onto his back, panting and staring up at the sky for a few minutes before removing his own mask. "You know, I fucking hated my Combat Water Safety Swimmer course."

Brad snorted. "More than SERE?"

Nate looked at him. "Except for the times I thought my interrogators were going to drown me, yes."

Sliding the equipment off his back, Brad took off his fins and got up. He pulled the hood of his wet suit down and then offered a hand to Nate. Every muscle in Brad's body was burning from the exertion. He could just imagine the shape Nate was in. "You knew Marines were amphibious before you joined, right?"

"Ha ha," Nate replied dryly before taking Brad's proffered hand.

Brad grunted as he pulled Nate up, but with his fins still on, Nate lost his balance and stumbled into him. Brad caught his arm and steadied him.

"Thanks," Nate said, standing too close.

Brad inhaled sharply before taking a step back. The night was dark—silent now except for the lapping of the waves. "You'd better take all that equipment off. I'll go get the bags."

Nate pulled his fins off while steadying himself with Brad's support and then nodded. With a quiet sigh of relief, Brad extricated himself to go get two of the hockey bags they'd left in the bushes by the side of the Marina. Mr. Frosty was parked down the street and Brad didn't think it would be a good idea for them to draw attention to themselves.

They loaded the SCUBA gear into the bags and slipped some athletic shoes on their bare feet. They still looked suspicious in their wet suits, but at least they were dark. When they were done, Nate looked out into the water and Brad followed his eyes. There was no sign of the ship that had chased them.

"What about Ray, Walt and Trombley?" Nate asked.

"We should go back to the truck. Poke's been monitoring our channels; he knows what's going on. He probably has Lovell's team already coordinating with Ray."

Nate nodded, taking one last look out at the water. "Good."

Just as they were about to head out, Brad paused as he remembered those last few minutes on the yacht. He reached out and touched Nate's arm. "What was it you saw back there?"

Nate turned to him, his eyes dark in the moonlight. "We were set up."

~~~

"Lovell's team is rendezvousing with Ray and Walt three klicks north of here and then they're going to go pick up Trombley," Brad called out after he got off the hook. Sliding out from the front seat, Brad moved toward the back. "Our little psycho cut off the ship that was attacking us and blew it up with an RPG."

Nate paused in mid-towel dry and looked up, coming close to Brad. "Really? He blew it up?"

Brad stared at the expanse of skin in front of him. Nate had pulled the top of his wet suit down to his waist and was still holding the towel in one hand. "Yeah," Brad said when he remembered to speak. "Lovell said the real Coast Guard is fishing people out now."

"Guess there's little chance we'll get the opportunity to question them?"

Brad looked up and forgot the question. Nate's eyes were dark and intense, his hair sticking up in every direction. Letting his eyes wander down to take in the whole sight, Brad saw that water was still coating Nate's skin in patches where the towel hadn't reached.

Taking a deep breath, Brad forced himself not to touch. It would be too easy. Nate was less than two feet away—just a step and Brad could put his hand on Nate's stomach and pull him close.

As if reading Brad's mind, Nate took a step closer and Brad reached out before he could stop himself. Nate's skin was warm—warmer than Brad had expected it to be as he traced it up towards Nate's chest.

"Brad—" Nate started and Brad immediately pulled his hand back like he'd been burned.

"Sorry—I'm sorry, I shouldn't have—" Brad turned away, turned his back on Nate to give them some space as he mentally berated himself for losing control. He knew better than that—he knew Nate wasn't interested and now he'd probably just gone and fucked up their relationship even more. "Sorry, sir. Momentary lapse in judgment, it won't happen again. You have my word."

"Brad, please don't," Nate said, grabbing Brad's arm and turning him back around. There was a pained look on Nate's face. "I—"

"No. You told me you weren't interested, I shouldn't have touched you. I'm sorry."

"I lied."

Brad's eyes snapped up to Nate's as his heart jumped into his throat. The small space between them seemed impossibly far, and at the same time, not nearly far enough. Nate's words echoed in his head. "Lied?"

"When I said I wasn't interested in men."

The words brought a rush of heat to Brad's face. The reluctance in Nate's face was evident though. Something still wasn't right. Then another possibility occurred to Brad, one more crushing than the idea that Nate wasn't interested at all. "So you were letting me down easy then?"

"If I recall," Nate said with a sigh, his face clearing as if he had finally come to some conclusion. "You were the one saying you weren't going to complicate matters by getting involved with me. You didn't want the distraction, so I took the distraction away. Only—" Nate's lips quirked into a smile, "I don't think you stopped being distracted."

Nate brought his hand up to Brad's chest which was still covered by the wetsuit and then ran it down Brad's side. Brad shuddered at the touch.

"So, you were trying to give me an easy way out?"

"Only, I'm not capable of carrying it through," Nate said, shivering as he reached up to undo the zipper of Brad's wetsuit. "Not when you look at me like that."

The cool air chilled his chest as his wetsuit came open and Brad lost whatever reserve he'd been clinging to. It seemed impossible that they were finding themselves here, like this. But Nate's eyes were wide and green and his fingers were sliding the wetsuit off Brad's shoulders and then working it down over his hips.

"Nate..." Brad whispered as Nate knelt down, still working the wetsuit off his legs. Brad tried to help, tried to get himself out of it, but it was glued to his skin. Nate shooed away his hands, slid it the rest of the way off himself, and then distracted Brad by skimming his lips down Brad's stomach to the indent just past his hip bone, leaving a trail of warm wetness in his wake.

When Nate's lips found Brad's dick, Brad had to reach back and brace himself against a crate of supplies. Nate's mouth was impossibly warm, especially against his cold skin, and when he sucked and teased with his tongue and his hands, Brad was already right there. There was too much adrenaline still cooling in his veins—his body was still ready for a fight—every nerve tensing for action. Iceman or not, Brad was still human.

Brad tried to pull him up. "Nate...stop...I...I'm going to come—"

Instead, Nate increased the pressure, took him in deep, his hands working hard and fast until Brad's tentative grip on control snapped and he couldn't hold it off anymore. The orgasm hit him fast and hard—harder than he'd been expecting, sucking the air from his lungs and slamming through his body. Nate carried him through it, swallowing and stroking until there was nothing left.

Brad collapsed bonelessly against the crate.

"You didn't have to do that," was all Brad could force out of his mouth.

Nate smiled, getting back up and cocking his head to one side. "I know."

Reaching out, Brad hooked his arm around Nate's waist to bring him closer. He wanted to taste those lips, taste himself there while looking at Nate's face, to feel him, to make sure he was real and not some exhaustion or stress-induced vision that would indicate he was losing his mind. Nate let himself be pulled closer, solid under Brad's grasp and not a fixture of his imagination.

Tracing the curvature of Nate's neck with his finger, Brad could still smell the light scent of Nate's deodorant. He started to guide Nate back, toward the fridge in the corner until Nate was sandwiched between.

"We shouldn't, Brad," Nate whispered even though Brad could feel his erection through the bottom half of his wetsuit. "We were lucky nobody came back. I'm sure it won't be long—"

"I want to take care of you."

"You shouldn't."

"Later, when all the plebeians are asleep then." Brad rubbed against him until Nate shivered.

Nate shook his head and pushed Brad away. "No."

"Why not?"

Right then a loud pounding sounded on the side door, and Brad had barely enough time to take a few steps back, grab the towel off the floor and wrap it around his waist before Ray opened the door.

"Hey, Homes!" Ray said, bounding into the truck, followed closely by Walt. SCUBA gear was dumped in a big pile in the center of the truck, clanging together in harmony with the cacophony of people entering a small space with lots of equipment.

Ray gave Brad a once over, his smirk widening even further. "I'm seriously hoping we interrupted something."

Brad affixed him his best withering glare, willing his pounding heart to slow down and tucking away any errant thoughts into the back of his head to protect them from this. Nate had already moved to the back of the truck to get dressed. "You interrupted me changing. However, you'll notice that I put my fucking gear away first."

Walt quickly dragged most of the mess over to the storage locker while Ray continued bouncing on the balls of his feet. "Fuck, Brad. You should have seen Trombley in action. He RPGed those motherfuckers. The fish'll be eating a feast for weeks with the mess he made."

"Where is Trombley?" Brad asked, going over to his locker to grab clothes.

For some reason, Ray closed his mouth and pointed his thumb to the outside of the truck. Brad turned to Walt for an explanation.

"Trombley got shot. Doc's looking at him now in the HQ."

"Poke's here?"

Walt nodded. "They pulled up just as we got here and Doc unloaded him in there. Said the light was better."

Quickly pulling an olive-drab t-shirt over his head and slipping into his cargo pants, Brad cast a quick look around. Nate was still busy doing his own thing, not that Brad would have been able to say anything now, so he hopped out of the truck and went out to check on Trombley. Sure enough, Poke's eighteen wheeler had pulled in right next to them.

Glancing at his watch, Brad was surprised to see it was well into the middle of the night. That was the problem with ops. Time became relative and its value stopped having any quantitative meaning. He'd had maybe two hours of sleep in the last thirty-six, and between the swimming, the shooting, and the blow-job, the exhaustion in his body ran all the way down to his bones.

The blow-job.

Fuck.

Brad felt like he'd been side-swiped. He paused for a minute, letting the cool air wash over him as he tried to gather his thoughts. He hadn't been expecting that from Nate. He wasn't prepared to deal with whatever the fuck was going on between them. It was just this tangled, complicated mess and there was no time or space to sort anything out. Fuck. And he had no idea why Nate had pushed him away at the end.

 

Taking a deep breath, Brad knocked on the back of the trailer, giving the password when asked through a little slot in the door. The door opened, and Lilley greeted him with a nod.

Brad found Trombley on a rack being tended to by Doc Bryan. "How is he?"

Trombley's chest was a mess of bandages and blood stains and Doc snorted while taking his pulse.

"His vitals are good. Damn fool's lucky the bullet didn't pierce his heart. We need to get him cas-evaced. We're just about to leave for the extraction point—bird's standing by to take him to our clinic."

Brad met Trombley's eyes and Trombley gave him a grin, made slightly more maniacal by whatever drugs Doc had already given him. "You should have seen it Sergeant. I blew up that ship like it was motherfucking cool."

~~~

Brad was leaning up against Poke's truck, trying to gather his thoughts when Nate opened the door to Mr. Frosty.

"How is he?" Nate asked, coming outside.

Brad sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "Doc gives him a high probability of harassing more dogs in the future. They need to get him to our clinic in Baltimore. We have a surgeon standing by, ready to patch him up. Poke's team is going to get him to the airport."

Nate came and stood beside him and leaned against the truck as well. The early morning breeze picked up and scattered some garbage lying around in the alley. "That's good. How are you?"

"I'll live," Brad replied, studying Nate's face. There didn't appear to be any awkwardness or regret on Nate's face, which was a good thing. At least they hadn't screwed up their working relationship completely. "I should have told Walt to stay with Trombley. We didn't have any other back up on the water and—"

"Don't," Nate interrupted. "There are always going to be things that could have been done differently. If there had been anyone on that boat, we would have had our hands full with just the four of us."

Nate's body heat warmed the side of his body. Brad weighted Nate's words. He knew Nate was right, but logic didn't diminish his guilt. Trombley was still a member of his team.

Nate continued, "Lovell's team offered to stay on watch for the next three hours so we can catch some shut eye. We have no new mission orders from Godfather, we might as well take advantage of the opportunity."

"That'd be nice," Brad conceded as he suddenly felt more exhausted than ever. There was just one more thing—if he didn't say it now, he never would. "Listen, Nate..."

Nate gave him a tired smile. "Can we not do this now?"

Brad didn't know what to say. "I didn't get the chance to reciprocate."

"That doesn't matter."

"It does to me," Brad said. "My sense of honor and justice in the world are unbalanced now."

With a quiet laugh, Nate started walking back to their truck. "I didn't mean to complicate things between us. You were probably right to want to avoid this and I went and made it worse. I'm sorry."

"Don't worry about it." Brad swallowed the bile in the back of his throat. He sure as fuck didn't want Nate's apology. The words he'd been dreading tumbled out of his mouth faster than he could stop them. "We'll just forget it ever happened, then?"

Nate gave him a terse nod, and turned back toward the truck. Brad stood rooted to the spot, watching him walk away, unable to think of a single personal thing to say to make him stay. He settled for work talk.

"Wait. Back on the dock, you said we'd been set up. What happened on the yacht? How come you took so long in the cabin?"

Nate closed the door he'd started to open and turned around. "They were expecting us. Our latest encryption protocols were on the desk."

Suddenly, Brad's exhaustion started to melt away. It was one thing to know that they had to deal with the stupidity of command, but their encryption protocols were classified information. The only way the Leon cartel could have had a copy of those, were if they had someone on the inside. "Why would they leave those lying around in plain sight?"

Nate shrugged. "Maybe they were hoping we'd stop to have a longer look? As soon as I saw them, I started tearing up the cabin, searching for anything else. And I nearly got us killed in the process, so I'd say it wasn't a bad plan on their part."

"Those were amateurs on that boat. Expendable. They weren't the brains of the cartel. Plus, that's not the Leon cartel's MO. Only one of the Leon brothers would have been trusted with an OP this size."

"So you're saying one of them is in town?"

Brad nodded. "At least for now."

Nate leaned against the door, and rubbed his face. "We should get some sleep and bring this up to Godfather in the morning. When I left him, Ray was singing about how he felt like a woman. I think even he's reached his limit."

"No," Brad said, shaking his head. "We need to find out who could have given our protocols to the cartel. If we can get to them, maybe we can turn them back. Get them to give us the location of one of their leaders"

With a sigh, Nate nodded. "Do you have any idea where to start?"

Running through a mental profile of everyone involved in Godfather's task force, it wasn't hard to pull out a name. They'd joked about it in the truck often enough.

"We need go to New York," Brad said. He got up off of Poke's truck, his mind suddenly alert again. He knew he needed sleep—they all did. Sooner or later, their bodies would stop responding to the adrenaline, but for now, Brad would keep riding it while he could. "I'll let Poke and Lovell know. We should step off ASAP."

"I'll let Ray and Walt know," Nate said.

Brad nodded. "And tell Ray to lay off the country music and go easy on the Ripped Fuel. For all our sakes."

 


An Underground parking garage, New York, NY

"Maybe I should try some of this shit," Ray said beside him. "It smells like ass, but if it can make my hair nice and shiny, give it bounce but keep it manageable—"

"Shut up, Ray."

Ray's usual nonstop babbling was at an all time high, probably due to the lack of sleep and increased intake of ephedra and caffeine-laced energy pills. Brad looked out the window, trying to see if anyone was coming, but they were still alone. For now.

"You're right, Brad. Salon hair care products are too fucking gay. But why should girls have all the nice stuff. Maybe someone needs to make designer shampoos for men because I swear, I can't do fucking shit with my hair these days. And look. It says on the label that it has truffle oil in it. Why would anyone want to put the oil of fungus on their hair? And for that matter, why would anyone want to smell like pomegranates, or melon or some shit like that? It's not like I want someone to eat my hair. Well, at least, not the hair on my head. And even then...if they're eating my fucking pubic hair, they're not doing it right. But I have to tell you, men who shave their balls, are way too fucking gay too. I don't wanna put a razor down there! Or worse—wax! Can you imagine trying to fucking wax your balls?"

"Ray," Brad said, finally turning to face Ray who was sitting in the spacious back seat of the Beamer with him. "Put the fucking shampoo and perfume bottles down and concentrate on your fucking job."

Ray rolled his eyes. "I am doing my fucking job. My job is recon and I'm currently reconning Meesh's backseat full of black market hair care shit and other paraphernalia. And have you asked yourself why Meesh has a case of Rolex watches on the floor of his Beamer? Because I have. And it has led me to believe that our dear Meesh, the guy who controls all the communication protocols for our operation, is perhaps involved in some shady fucking deals that might bring into question his integrity and honor."

Brad glanced through the tinted windows at the sound of footsteps moving in the parking garage. "Steady, Ray. I think our entrepreneur has finally arrived."

Focusing on his breathing, Brad kept perfectly still. They'd been waiting for forty minutes; he didn't want to risk any movement that would give away their position. There was a double beep as the door locks disengaged, and then the front driver side door opened. For someone involved in the intelligence community, Meesh wasn't the most observant man. Meesh got in with a heavy sigh, lugging his briefcase through the door and trying to put it in the passenger seat. But of course, the briefcase got jammed between him and the steering wheel as Meesh muttered and cursed. Finally Meesh yanked it through and it tumbled to the floor. Then Meesh adjusted his seat, pulled out his cell phone and sent some text messages before finally glancing up in the rear-view mirror and meeting Brad's eyes.

"Fuck, dude!" Meesh yelled, throwing his hands up, his cell phone clattering to the ground. Brad put his KA-BAR up against Meesh's throat.

"Don't move and don't do anything stupid, Meesh," Brad said quietly.

Ray gave a tap on the window and then the passenger-side door opened and Nate got in the front seat.

"What the fuck, Brad?" Meesh stuttered out, trying to twist around to see Brad.

Nate grabbed a hold of Meesh's chin and turned him so they were looking at each other. "We need to talk. Introductions have been a little slow since I first started, but I'm Nate Fick. And I want to know why the fuck you're trying to get my team killed."

Meesh snorted. "I don't know what you're talking about."

Brad tightened the grip on his knife and pressed the edge a little harder into Meesh's neck, careful not to break the skin. "Meesh, don't fuck around with us. We're tired. We were almost blown up and we gave up our three hours of shut eye to drive here and talk to you. I want to know why you're working with the Leon cartel."

Meesh squirmed in his seat as Brad pressed in a little harder. "I don't know anything, I swear."

"Well, if you really want to play it that way...Ray." Brad tilted his head at him.

Ray twisted his head from side to side, cracking his neck and doing some arm stretches too. "Alright. But I'll have you know, it gives me no pleasure to do this," Ray said, pulling out his own KA-BAR. With a quick flick of his wrist, he used it to put a gash on the ceiling. "Fucking beautiful car..."

"Fuck!" Meesh cried out. "What are you doing?"

Brad narrowed his eyes and leaned in a little closer. "Meesh...is there anything you want to tell us about encryption protocols, or shall I have Ray reupholster your shiny, new-smelling, leather seats?"

"I don't know anything!"

With an audible sigh, Brad nodded to Ray. "Fine. Tell Walt to bring the gasoline."

"No, no, no. That won't be necessary. " Meesh held his hands up in surrender. "Maybe I know something."

"Start talking," Nate said, releasing Meesh's collar so he could sit back.

When Meesh turned his face toward to Nate's though, the panic seemed to recede a little and Brad was just about to smack him around to get him talking again when Meesh raised his eyebrow and caught Brad's eye in the rearview mirror. "I may know something, but it won't be what you want to hear."

Brad glared at him. "I'll take my chances. Start with the encryption protocols we found on the yacht last night."

Meesh shook his head and reached for something in his pocket. Immediately, Brad tightened his grip on the knife. Meesh pointed to a pack of cigarettes and then slid one out and into his mouth when Brad rolled his eyes. "Dude, I think you want me to start earlier than that. Shit started to get fucked up at the stakeout in the park. The cartel had eyes on you and the Mustang. Then they found you in the alley and blew up your truck."

"So you've been playing us from the beginning?" Brad demanded.

Meesh shook his head. "Not me, dude. Things were going to shit long before I showed up."

"What are you talking about?"

Meesh inclined his head in Nate's direction. "What do you think? When he joined us, the rest of Bravo got stopped by the cops on the way to our fucking sting."

Nate leaned forward and pinned Meesh to his seat. "Give me a break. Do you want to know what I think? I think you sell a lot of things out of this car, Meesh, including intel on Godfather's organization."

"Whatever," Meesh said, lighting his cigarette. "The fact remains, dude, that we didn't have an information leak in our operation until you showed up."

"That's enough," Brad said, sharply. A cold feeling was brewing in the pit of his stomach, and it felt like he was going to puke. He turned to Ray and said, "Get Walt here now."

"No! Not the car!" Meesh started to protest but Brad had had enough. His anger was brimming close to the surface—this was as close as any time he'd actually come to losing his shit. He hopped over to the front seat and forced Meesh out of the car, following behind him and pushing Meesh's body against the hood when they got out. When he'd divested Meesh of the rest of his cigarettes, pager, flask of cognac, and semi-automatic pistol he had hidden in his sock, Brad zip-cuffed his hands together behind his back and pushed him toward Mr. Frosty as Walt pulled into the parking spot next to them.

"You can't do this to me," Meesh continued as Brad escorted him to the side door and with Ray's help, threw him inside. Ray went in to secure him, while Brad closed the door. He could still hear Meesh's muffled screams from inside the truck, protesting his innocence and implicating Nate, instead.

Nate was getting out of the Beamer and closing the door. "What a waste of time. Do you think there's any point in detaining him? He's just going to spew whatever bullshit comes out of his mouth—"

Brad forced himself to act without thinking. There was this horrible, gut-wrenching nausea inside his stomach, and as he tried to process the impossibility of Meesh's words, it just got worse. If there were any truth to Meesh's accusations, Brad had to act. It was built into him and as fundamental as his name, even if it felt like he was cutting off a limb. He grabbed Nate's arm, twisted him around so his stomach slammed against the door of the Beamer and pulled his KA-BAR up against Nate's neck.

"Is there any truth to what Meesh was saying, sir?"

Nate fought for breath as he struggled against him. "Are you insane?"

"No. Just really fucking tired of playing this game."

Nate twisted his head as far as possible so he could look at Brad. "I am not selling intel to the cartel, Brad."

"Why'd you go to the park two days ago?"

"To buy some fucking ice cream!"

Using his forearm to keep Nate pinned, Brad pulled out another set of zip-cuffs. He slapped them on Nate's wrists and then pulled him toward the truck.

"I can't believe you're seriously considering listening to Meesh. I'm new here and even I've figured out that's a bad idea."

Suddenly, the thread of Brad's anger got pulled too tight and he threw Nate against the side of the truck. Nate stumbled but managed to stay upright.

"I'll tell you what I fucking believe, sir," Brad said, stabbing his KA-BAR in the roof of Meesh's car and approaching Nate. All the clues and intel from the last few days started coming together. "I believe Meesh would try and sell swamp in Florida to retired grandmothers on social security. I usually don't have trouble seeing through his sales-pitch, but this time, I got fucking goose bumps as he was talking. Because even if everything was a fucking coincidence.... How the fuck did you go from being a hostage, to worming your way into Godfather's operation and becoming my boss? Because you never quite answered me that one. Then there's the small matter of your bank account wiring a large amount of money. It's awfully convenient that you wanted us to catch up on sleep instead of driving down here to find out intel on our leak. Then there's us. Did the Cartel hire you because of your talented blowjobs or was that just a bonus?"

"You know what, Brad? Fuck you. If, after everything we've just been through, you think I could sell you out, then nothing I can say is going to change your mind."

Brad grabbed Nate by the arms and hauled him toward the side door. "That wasn't what I wanted to hear." He pounded on the door until it opened, then he pushed Nate in, hauled himself through the door and shut it behind him.

Nate crashed into Meesh on the floor and Ray looked at Brad. "Seriously, Brad? Again?"

"Shut up, Ray. Walt—drive."

"Where to, boss?"

Brad jumped into the front seat, picked up a magazine off the floor and put it over his face. "I don't fucking care, just get us the hell out of here."

 


Allentown, PA

Brad didn't think he'd fallen asleep, but when the image of Ray in his mind morphed into a small, yappy dog who tried to piss on Godfather's leg, Brad started awake. The magazine had slipped to the floor and the sun was bright in the sky.

He checked his watch. It was noon.

"He's alive!" Ray squealed from the driver's seat. Walt was behind him at the computer station shooting zombies.

With a groan, Brad tried to go back to sleep, tried to focus back on Ray being a dog, but the dream slipped through his fingers like sand. Instead, his diffuse thoughts focused on their dick-suck of a situation.

"Where are we?"

"Well, we're waiting here in Allentown. For the Pennsylvania we never found..."

Brad held out a hand to stop him. "Ray."

"What? It's Billy Joel."

"What the fuck are we doing here?"

Ray passed him a plastic bag. Knowing he was probably going to regret it, Brad looked inside. Sure enough, there was an Allentown souvenir snow globe. Brad closed the bag and tossed it back to him.

"I thought I said no more snow globes," Brad said, staring at the already crowded dash.

Ray flashed him a grin. "I found an empty spot on the ice machine. And don't go getting your panties in a knot. I also bought double sided tape for proper mounting..."

Brad forced himself not to look in the back, not to check on Nate and see how he was doing. His head still felt like it was filled with cotton. He tried to focus on his train of thought before had Ray had turned into a Chihuahua.

"Where's Godfather right now?"

Ray shrugged, then got on the radio to HQ. After some back and forth, he hung up and turned back to Brad. "Meeting with the Boston police commissioner after lunch and then flying to Washington tonight."

"Good," Brad said, rubbing his face and then straightening up. He looked at the GPS on the dash and plotted the route back to Boston. "We're going back to Boston. Get us there ASAP."

"Iceman's got a plan?"

Brad swung around so that he could check out the situation in the back. Meesh was lying on the floor, drooling on his chest, and Nate was sitting on a crate of ammo, purposefully not looking at Brad. He must be completely exhausted, but Brad could find no hint of it on him. Brad ignored Nate and kicked Meesh's foot until he woke.

"Huh? What? What time is it, dude? Where the fuck are you taking me?"

Brad gave him a dry, meaningless smile. "Good question. Since it's beyond my pay grade to determine which one of you is lying, I'm taking you both to Godfather. And after explaining everything to him and his cronies, I'm going to leave both of you in his capable hands. And as much as I have issues with some of his decisions, I know one thing about Godfather. He doesn't tolerate traitors."

Meesh paled. "Now, look, Brad. You don't want to do anything rash. Godfather doesn't always approach these things in a cool and logical manner. Not like you. He doesn't wait to uncover the truth, he just acts. You don't want anything rash to happen to us, do you?"

Nate finally turned toward them. "Speak for yourself, Meesh. I'm not worried about what Godfather will say."

"Because you've got it made!" Meesh cried out. "But I don't have senators in my back pocket. He's going to cut off my balls because he can't touch you."

Brad's eyes were drawn to Nate, but Nate's jaw was set and righteous indignation poured out of him. Nate offered no explanation about senators or why he was untouchable.

"Maybe because I didn't do anything wrong," Nate said to Meesh.

"Look," Meesh said, getting up on his knees and pleading. "Just don't turn me in to Godfather. It wasn't my call. The CIA told me to make sure the Leon cartel felt they were being given solid intel from an inside source so they could use me to set up a raid. It's the fucking spooks. They want the glory for themselves."

"And you felt the need to give it to them?" Nate asked, lurching himself at Meesh. They both ended up sprawled on the floor as Nate tried to pin him with his shoulder. "You were willing to sacrifice us to appease some fucking egos?"

Immediately, Brad and Walt were on their feet, Brad grabbing Nate and hauling him off Meesh, while Walt pulled Meesh out of harm's way and aimed his side arm at his head.

"So this bullshit you were spinning about Nate," Brad said, putting the pieces together, "is stuff you planted?"

Meesh didn't say anything and Nate tried to attack him again.

"Nate, calm down," Brad said as Nate fought against him. Nate eventually stilled, but he was anything but calm. His whole body was tight with tension. When Brad was sure Nate wouldn't jerk away, he reached for his knife only to realize he'd left it impaled on the roof of Meesh's car. Fuck.

Brad reached into a side compartment, removed a box cutter and cut Nate's cuffs. As soon as Nate realized he was free, he bolted out of Brad's personal space, turning around to face him while rubbing his wrists.

"Sorry," Brad said, finally. Meesh was blubbering in the background, testing Walt's patience but Brad's focus was completely on Nate.

Nate didn't acknowledge him, but rather went up front to see Ray. "Pull into the service station up ahead." Nate's tone allowed for no discussion and for once Ray didn't offer any. As they pulled into the gas station, Nate checked on Walt, told him to secure Meesh properly and then exited the vehicle, heading toward the washrooms.

"He's fucking pissed, Brad."

Brad tried not snap. "Yes, Ray, I know. I'm not a fucking idiot."

"Well, go talk to him."

Biting off the scathing remark that was on the tip of his tongue, Brad did as he was told. Ray ordering him about was the last fucking thing he wanted to deal with right now, but there was a small spark of logic to Ray's suggestion that Brad didn't want to admit. He forced himself to swallow the curse words and the insults, and mostly his pride, and exited the door before he changed his mind.

The cool breeze blew across the mostly empty parking lot.

The service station had a large men's room with a row of toilets on one side, and urinals and sinks on the other side. It smelled like piss. Brad caught up with Nate as he was splashing water on his face. Nate ignored him, continued washing, running his wet hands through his hair before turning off the tap and grabbing a paper towel.

"What do you want, Brad?" Nate asked eventually, looking at him through the dirty mirror.

"I—" Brad stared at Nate's face, at the hard lines that were a consequence of Brad's mutiny and felt the nausea return. As much as he and Kocher had talked about incapacitating Captain America so he couldn't fuck things up for them, what Brad had just done was much worse. He'd betrayed Nate in the worst possible way a subordinate could and he'd lost a lot more than just his KA-BAR doing so. "I'm sorry."

"What? You want me to say that it's fine. No big deal?"

"No," Brad said, unable to say what he really wanted. Did he want forgiveness? Understanding? Mostly, all he really wanted was for Nate to stop looking at him that way.

"You really think I could sell the Leon cartel information? Those bastards killed my brother-in-law." Nate turned to face him, raw pain in his eyes as his voice cracked at the end.

"You don't have to explain."

"No, Brad, apparently, I do. You wanted to know how I went from being your hostage, to being your boss, then let me tell you. Two years ago, just as I got back from Afghanistan, my brother-in-law was working as an undercover cop, trying to infiltrate the cartel. They found out and had him killed. You wanted to know why I had wire transfers from my account? Because every few months I try and send something to my sister so she can make ends meet. Why was I in your fucking park? Because last week, my sister called me sobbing. Those assholes have been targeting my nephew, trying to get him and his friends to deal. She wanted to move her family. So I came down here to help and got my nephew to take me to the park where he was usually harassed. Funny enough, when I got there, I ran into a man in an ice cream truck who wasn't what he appeared to be.

"You wanted to know why I thought you should grab some sleep instead of driving down here? You want to know why I left the Corps? Because I try and take care of my men. Because the mission is important, but not at the expense of their lives. Not for shit like this. If you're going to get yourself killed in a job like this, it better not be because Ray fell asleep at the wheel and drove you everyone head first into a Mack truck."

Brad swallowed hard.

"You want a reference? Here," Nate pulled out his cell phone and held it out to him. "Call Mike Wynn. Because that's who I called to find out about you. Mike was my Gunnery Sergeant, and I called him on a hunch that he might have known you back when you were in the Corps. He knew you alright. Said you were the hardest warrior around, that you were honorable and that I could trust you with anything."

Brad gave him a weak smile. "Mike's a good guy."

"Yeah, well. Maybe he can give you the low-down on me, so we can move past this and do our fucking jobs."

"You'll have no further problems with me, sir. I promise," Brad said, meaning it with everything he had. There was nothing else he could give Nate except his word, even if the trust between them was shattered.

Nate paused, sizing him up. After a moment he let out a sigh. "Then let's get out of here and find out what else Meesh knows."

Brad gave him a nod and followed him out the door.

~~~

When Brad opened the side door to the truck, he was hit with a smell so thick it was like walking into a brick wall head on. Worse than the smell of the urinals and unwashed floors in the washroom back there. Blinking the smell out of his eyes, he tried not to choke as he hauled himself inside. "Ray, what the fuck did you do?"

"Why are you assuming it's me?" Ray said in an entirely unconvincing way.

"He broke a ninety dollar bottle of Chanel Number 5," Meesh wailed from the corner, the skin around his wrists raw from struggling with the tie.

Brad's eyes travelled to the driver's seat and sure enough, there was liquid everywhere. "Ray..."

Nate pushed past him and manually rolled down front the windows. "Walt, open the serving window," he ordered.

Walt did as he was told, but the small breeze didn't help.

The headache moved right into the center of Brad's forehead as he turned back to Meesh and Ray.

"...Three ounces of that shit," Meesh was carrying on. "I can't believe you're such an idiot!"

Reaching under the compressor for the wrench, Brad grabbed it and turned to Meesh, grabbing his collar with the other hand, his temper reaching its breaking point.

"Enough. You're going to start talking, or I'm going to remove your testicles through your fucking throat. Where can we intercept the Leon brothers? We know there was a meeting out there, somewhere. You're going to tell us where, when, and what was on the fucking menu."

"Brad," Ray called from the driver's seat with the radio headset hanging off his ear.

Brad let go of Meesh and turned around. "What the fuck do you want, Ray?"

"The Leon brothers are meeting at the Hilton in Boston this evening. Orders just came down from Godfather."

~~~

There was silence as Nate spoke on the radio.

Brad tossed the wrench aside and took a seat on a pile of boxes, rubbing his head with his hands. The stench was making his headache worse. Without comment, Walt handed him a bottle of aspirin which Brad quickly and gratefully opened and swallowed two dry.

"You're not going to believe this," Nate said, coming into the back with a smile. "But we're back in the game. Ray assures me we can be in position by 2000 hours—"

"We're gassed up and ready to go!" Ray shouted from the front.

"What about the clusterfuck in Long Beach?" Brad asked. "What about Meesh?"

Nate shrugged. "It was all a red herring. The cartel was trying to lead us away from the meeting point and apparently we let them. It was all a feint, part of the plan to throw them off our trail. If they thought we were chasing a phony meeting on a yacht, then they would feel secure in carrying on with their original meeting plan."

"In Boston?"

Nate nodded. "Full circle."

"Right."

"You onboard?" Nate asked, and at least for now, the guarded expression that had taken hold of his face since Brad tied him up the second time was gone.

Brad nodded. "I'm onboard, sir."

"Get your motor runnin','" Ray started belting out as he turned over the engine and pulled them back on the road. The tension melted away as everyone started pulling out map sheets and GPS readings, finding out everything they could about the location of the meeting.

"There are five possible insertion locations," Walt said as he brought up the white board from behind the freezer. "Bravo-three-one scouted the location last week."

"Head out on the highway...“

Brad stood up and reached for the knife holding the Idaho bumper sticker to the wall. He tucked it into the slot meant for his KA-BAR. It would have to do.

"Godfather reports that the power grid for the block is hacked," Nate updated, the radio back against ear as he received the sit-reps.

Against all odds, it looked like this takedown was finally going to happen.

Brad pulled out his satellite tracking system, watching the lights come up as all of Godfather's assets were uploaded. With a smile, he saw Poke's team already in location and the TAD frequencies coming through as well. They actually had air support for this. Go figure.

For the first time in almost three days, things were looking up, even despite the stench—though that was becoming less noticeable as the receptors in his nose started to choke and die off.

Ray's turned back and gave them a wicked grin over his shoulder. "Born to be wild..."

 


Sixty stories up, Boston, MA

"You guys reek, man. What'd you do, open up fire in a fucking whorehouse?" Lovell asked as he pulled Brad's harness, tightening it enough to cut off circulation to Brad's balls.

The moon was high in the sky and Brad slapped Lovell's hand away and adjusted it himself. It's not that he ever really wanted to have children, but still. He had no desire to sing falsetto, either. "Ray lost an argument with a perfume bottle in the truck. We all have to suffer as a result; it's only fair to inflict our stench on the bad guys as well."

Lovell gave Brad's gear a final once over and then started on Nate who was standing next to him, on the edge of a sixty story building across the block from the Hilton. Cars travelled on the road below oblivious to them. "They're gonna smell you coming a mile away."

"Which is why Ray is on the street driving the truck," Brad replied.

"Maybe they'll think whores are coming to entertain them," Poke offered up. "Better practice shaking your booty, Brad."

"You sure you don't want to come for a ride?" Brad asked Poke who was standing a safe distance from the edge.

Poke looked at Brad, glanced down at the street below and then raised his eyebrow. "Trust my life on the white hands that made those plastic ropes? No thanks, dawg. Plus, the wife feeds me well and I want to enjoy her meals again someday soon. I'll let you two have all the fun."

"I think you have trust issues, Poke."

Poke laughed. "I trust gravity, Brad. That's enough for me."

Beside him, Nate finished adjusting his radio, strapping the transmitter to his throat while the receiver was tucked behind his ear.

Rudy and Pappy were lying prone, Pappy looking though his sniper rifle while Rudy guided him around with the scope. They were the eyes of the operation. The Leon brothers had chosen a hotel room in the middle of the building, with only a small window to minimize the chance of unexpected surprises. Exactly what Brad and Nate were hoping for. However, on the off chance that the Leon brothers made the stupid mistake of walking past their window, Rudy and Pappy were ready to make it an even shorter op.

"Hey boss," Poke said, turning to Nate. "Any news from Bravo-Three? No one's seen them since they were released from police custody."

Nate shook his head. "No. Godfather's been trying to raise them on comms all day and he's fucking pissed. Guess that'll be our next mission, after tonight."

Brad smiled at Nate's words. This mission could be over tonight. All three Leon brothers were supposed to be at this meeting and Godfather had cleared them to eliminate anyone in that room. If they could take them out, then they would effectively put an end to the Leon drug cartel for good.

This was one mission Brad would be happy to put behind him.

Another thought occurred to Brad just as quickly. Nate obviously had a vested interest in completing this mission, but would he stick around in his new job once it was over? The smile slowly faded from Brad's face. He was in it for life. This is what he was meant to be doing. But Nate...would Nate be willing to give up whatever life he had before working in this circus?

"So, you never finished your story," Brad said, trying to make conversation after they had deployed to their hold position a half-hour later. Nate was swinging a foot away from him on his own zip line. They were suspended between buildings, diagonally slung between the roof of the sixty-six floor building and the window of a hotel room two hundred meters away. Traffic zoomed relentlessly beneath them as their descenders held them securely in place.

"Which story would that be?" Nate asked, his knuckles white where he was gripping his harness. His legs dangled in front as he shifted and tried to find some way to brace them.

Brad spared a glance at the people below, clueless as to what was going on around them. "After you spoke to Mike, how'd you find out about Godfather? How'd you get a hold of him and get this job?"

"After I got out of the Corps, I went to work for Senator Rundle in Washington. When I got off the phone with Mike, I went to Rundle with what I knew about the operation. He went to the oversight committee and pulled a few strings. He got on the committee and I got my interview with Godfather."

"Working for a senator, huh? Sounds cushy."

"Are you implying I let myself go soft?"

Swallowing his reply was probably the wisest course of action. "Is he expecting you back?"

Nate's face was impassive. "I don't know. We hadn't discussed the future. But if you're sick of me already..."

"I'm not sick of you, sir," Ray interrupted over their headsets.

There was laughter over the comms as Brad rolled his eyes. "Glad to know none of you have anything better to do."

"Shut up, Ray. Let the two of them have their moment," Poke added.

"Well, sir," Brad drawled, continuing his conversation with Nate and holding down the talk button on his receiver, effectively jamming the channel, "the plebeians around here are allowed far too much personal freedom to do fuck all during a mission while those of us in positions that demand action are often hogtied and left to be fucked raw."

After thirty seconds, he released the button and found the chatter had died off. "I was just wondering why you'd willingly work with this bunch of retards, if you had a nice, easy desk job you could go back to."

The wind picked up a little, rocking them back and forth. Nate gripped the rope attaching him to the zip line a little tighter, but otherwise appeared calm. "I don't know. Turns out I'm not very good at sitting behind a desk. Plus, fresh air is supposed to be good for you. Look at all the fresh air we're getting, just hanging around."

Nate flashed him a small smile and Brad gave him a nod. "True. We don't sit behind a desk much."

"We did sit under a desk that time in Tampa," Ray offered up.

"Yes, Ray, but we wouldn't have been stuck in the office in the first place if you had put out to the secretary down the hall."

"She was nasty, Brad. Even I have standards."

There was more laughter on the comms as various people called Ray out as a liar.

"Since we're just hanging around chatting," Nate said as things lulled again, meeting Brad's eyes. "Can someone explain to me why Brad never took my job? Godfather said he turned it down several times."

Everyone was silent as Brad waited to see who would snitch. He kept his face serene; Nate hadn't directed the question at him after all. He was actually surprised Ray waited this long.

Instead, Ray went a different route. "They don't call Brad the Iceman for nothing, but there's a lot to be said for avoiding situations that might trigger unpleasantness. Brad prefers to keep a safe distance between his weapon and command. Figures it's a win-win, situation."

"Na, man," Poke said, following Ray's lead. "The Iceman's no gentleman. Can you imagine him sipping tea with the rest of those officers? Fuck no."

More jokes and outlandish theories were tossed around, all skirting the answer neatly. Brad was pleasantly surprised by the loyalty.

"So, why don't you tell me," Nate asked when the jokes were done and he realized he hadn't gotten his answer.

"And spoil the fun?"

"Humor me."

It was no great secret why he'd turned Godfather down—most of the guys were from Afghanistan and knew what had gone down—but still Brad was reluctant to voice the words. So he took the out Ray and the guys had offered him. "I thought I could best serve my team by being down in the trenches with them, sir."

"You don't like planning and organizing do you?"

"I don't like policy meetings and brainstorming sessions. You could say that discussions on the pros and cons of buying three-hole punched paper or buying regular paper and hole-punching it in-house irritate me."

"Fuck yeah," someone added, and everyone broke into laughter again. Brad tried to hide his own smile. Schwetje had never made the mistake of forcing him to go to a management meeting again.

"I see movement." Rudy's voice cut through the jokes and everyone was instantly silent. Brad lifted the scope of his rifle up to his eye, all extraneous thoughts gone from his head. Someone was entering the hotel room.

"All tangos are accounted for. There are five within the room, counting the three targets of interest."

"Ray, clear us with HQ," Nate ordered, sliding a round into the chamber of his rifle.

Thirty seconds later, Ray came back on the line. "You are cleared to advance hot."

At that, Brad tightened the grip on his M4, securing the butt of it in the soft part between his arm and chest, pointing the barrel toward his feet. Then he turned to Nate to wait for his orders.

Nate gave him a nod. "Let's do it."

They released the brakes holding them midway between buildings, Nate delaying his by a second so that Brad was slightly ahead. Immediately, gravity took over, accelerating them down the steep angle as they continued their slide toward the Hilton. The side of the building approached fast and at twenty feet out, Brad opened up on the window with automatic fire.

Glass shattered everywhere as his feet followed the bullets through the window. Timing his movement perfectly, Brad hit the release on his harness just as the slider reached the anchor point in the wall, and propelled himself through the window. He landed in a crouch on the floor with bullets flying everywhere. Nate followed a split second later as Brad dove behind the bed to take stock of the situation. Leaning over the side, two bodies were visible on the carpet, blood pooling beneath them.

Brad aimed his rifle over the bed, providing suppressive fire while Nate made his way behind an overturned table across from him. When Nate was in place, Brad took the opportunity to recon the rest of the room.

There would be no covering up this op. There was broken glass all over the floor and bullets holes sprayed across the walls. One of the bodies on the ground was definitely Antonio Leon, the middle brother, and logistical manager of the cartel. Antonio had had the good grace to fall backwards when he died, making identification easier and Brad had committed their faces to memory a long time ago. The man beside him was an assistant Brad had seen in an intel briefing. Someone was on the other side of the bed—Brad noticed a head pop up when Nate paused his fire.

There were two more tangos in the washroom off to the right, near the entrance of the hotel room and a laptop was lying sideways on the floor.

Brad took a deep breath, put the scope of his rifle up to his eye and waited; his M4 resting just above the tacky, floral bedspread for the next hint of skull.

Brad didn't have to wait long. Iago Leon poked his head up, holding a pistol in each hand which was very foolish. That shit only worked in the movies. Iago didn't get a chance to fire off either one and even if he had, his aim would have been completely off. Brad hit him directly in the forehead before ducking back behind the bed, keeping his breathing under perfect control.

There was cursing from the bathroom and a spray of bullets flew around the room.

When Brad risked a look, he saw that the laptop was now gone, presumably in the bathroom with the two remaining targets. He considered using a grenade. Since all the gunfire would be impossible to cover up anyway, what was an extra explosion if it would secure the scene? But grenades were messy, loud and in the worse case scenarios, were sometimes lobbed back.

"Gabe, Q-Tip get ready. One's going to come your way," Brad said into his comms, as he noticed movement. Feet were shuffling, and orders were being bandied around in rapid Spanish. Gabe was waiting in the hall in case anyone tried to make a break for it and Q-Tip wasn't far behind.

"Affirmative," Gabe responded. "I'm coming in."

As Gabe kicked in the door, bullets started spraying again. Brad ducked around the side of the bed, where Manuel, the eldest of the Leon brothers, started firing toward the new movement. Gabe went down and Brad was pinned as the other man lunged toward him.

Brad ducked behind the bed. When the other man, who was likely just a security guard, was less than a foot away, Brad stood up, aiming his rifle at the center of his body. The man stumbled, surprising Brad by diving for the window instead of grabbing him or Nate, flailing his arms around as he staggered toward it.

Manuel Leon was still shooting so Brad switched his attention to him, ending the shootout out with a well placed bullet through an eye. Brad heard the scream of the security guard falling through the open window in the background.

Brad stared at the lifeless bodies in front of him—the three Leon brothers dead and then at Gabe who was lying motionless on the floor. Brad dove toward him, slapping his face while calling out his name.

"Gabe! We got a man down," Brad shouted into the comms. There was no blood on the floor, just three or four bullet holes visible in Gabe's shirt as Brad turned him over. He hoped that the vest had caught them all.

Brad vaguely heard Nate's voice asking about rope lengths.

Gabe groaned as Doc came running up to them, medical kit at the ready. Q-Tip, Lilley and Christopher were close on his heels, Christopher hauling a stretcher and a blow torch.

"Where's boss going?" Lilley asked, pointing behind Brad. Brad glanced over his shoulder in time to see Nate's head disappearing out the window and a ton of fucking chatter on the comms.

"What the fuck's going on?" Brad demanded, stepping over bodies and moving to the broken window. Nate was already ten meters down, and descending fast.

"We got intel that they have people on the ground," Poke responded. "They're moving into position to pick up whatever's left of the guy who just took a nose dive."

Brad glanced into the washroom and saw the laptop shattered. "That guy had some data from the cartel. Probably operational data. We need to secure it."

"Already on it," Nate replied, a little out of breath.

Brad stuck his head out the window. They were only sixteen stories up and Nate was almost at the ground. With tires squealing, he saw a sports car pull around the corner, gunning in Nate's direction.

With a fluid motion, Brad pulled out the longest spare rope he had on his pack and threaded it through the anchor already above the window sill. Securing it to his harness, Brad jumped off the ledge, trusting his life to the miracle of nylon rope.

He was not leaving Nate down there without any backup.

"Where the fuck is Ray?" Brad said, squeezing the descender open so he could reach top speed.

"Coming!" Ray shouted. "There are three victors in pursuit. I'm tied up with the Hummer."

The ground was approaching fast, but not fast enough. A handful of people were standing around, pointing and yelling at the scene until the sports car skidded towards them, making them scatter. Someone hopped out of the car and ran toward the body. Brad aimed his rifle and started shooting, careful not to hit any of the bystanders still trying to get away. The driver poked his head out the window and started firing back.

Nate reached the ground, disengaged from his rope and started sprinting toward them.

The man located what he was looking for and started running back to the car. Brad switched his aim to the vehicle, aiming at the engine block as best he could with one-hand.

The man switched his course and made a break for the side of the building, down the alleyway in the back. Nate followed.

Rudy and Pappy worked their magic and a shot from 200 meters away dropped the driver to the ground. Brad hit the ground running, practically disengaging his rope while he was still several feet in the air. Gravity worked fast though and quickly, Brad was racing as fast as possible in the direction Nate had gone.

"Two victors are coming your way," Poke said calmly. "Ray's close behind on the second but the first is coming down Third Street. It's going to try to cut you off."

"Roger," Nate said as he put forth a burst of speed and threw himself at the man, tackling him to the ground. It was hard to see in the darkness; the streetlights didn't penetrate very far into the alley.

Brad got there as Nate picked up the man's shoulders and slammed his head into the ground with a thud. The man's face was covered in blood and he didn't get up again. Nate picked up the flash drive that had fallen to the ground just as a van pulled into the alley ahead of them.

Bullets started spraying again and Brad pulled them behind a dumpster. A crash of metal against metal made Brad turn around as a second car, this one a Hummer, came in the alley from the opposite direction, effectively boxing them in.

"Fuck," said Brad under his breath.

"Aim for the tires," Nate replied, and standing back-to-back, tucked up against the dumpster, they opened fire on the two targets coming at them from opposite directions.

There was almost a surreal feeling to it all, Brad noticed. Nate was solid and true against his back, and it was very easy to concentrate on the Hummer barreling toward them. Even set to automatic, where aiming was low on the priority, Brad watched as he blew out, one—two—three tires. The Hummer veered right, then left as it over-corrected and then crashed into the wall fifty meters out. The engine burst into flames.

Brad turned around, ready to help Nate when he saw that the van was practically on top of them. The front right tire was gone and so was the windshield, but that allowed the driver and passenger to fire directly at them.

Tires squealed behind them and Brad got ready to unload again. He recognized the shape of the truck just in time—the distinctive shape of a turret on top as Mr. Frosty showed up on the scene.

"Walt, give them what you got!" Brad shouted.

"They're fucking danger close! I can't shoot without hitting you guys."

"Then don't fucking miss," Nate yelled, spinning out of his position and pulling Brad with him. Nate pushed him in the direction of Mr. Frosty and they both took off as fast possible, trying to put more distance between them and the van.

Walt lobbed off a 202 round, barely over their heads. The explosion blew them to the ground, Brad getting a face-full of concrete as Nate landed on top of him.

Several more rounds were fired, and they stayed on the ground with their heads tucked down as the fireworks exploded all around.

A few minutes later, Brad realized all he could hear was the ringing in his ears.

"We came, we saw, we kicked their ass," Ray's voice was jubilant over the comms. The ringing changed to the sound of sirens in the distance.

"Ray," Brad managed to croak out. It was hard because his throat felt like he'd swallowed a fire stick. Also possibly, all the air had gotten knocked out of his body because Nate was heavier than he looked. "Get the truck out of here. We'll extract on foot."

"You sure?" Ray asked.

"Go," Brad ordered, finally getting more air in his lungs as Nate shifted off him. The last thing they needed was for the police to detain them all.

Ray put the truck in reverse, and within seconds, he'd maneuvered out of the alleyway.

"Are you okay?" Nate asked, sitting up.

Brad rolled over onto his back and took inventory of the issues. He was pretty sure he was intact, not missing any limbs or leaking internal organs. Overall, considering the shit that had just gone down, he was willing to put this one in the win column. He looked up at Nate with a grin.

"We have to stop meeting like this," Brad teased, trying to sit up. His hands were shaking and he suddenly felt cold all over. Damn the adrenaline high.

Nate laughed loudly, nervously, as he stood up. "For a big guy, I do seem to knock you on your ass a lot. Come on. We gotta go if we're going to slip out of here unseen."

Brad got to his feet. Peeling off their harness and battle gear they tossed them into the fire that was consuming the van. The last things to go were the grenades, which were harder to hide. As much as Brad hated to waste them, he threw all except one into the burning van.

Brad motioned toward the closest door in the alleyway, sticking the lock with his knife. He pulled the pin on a remaining grenade, tossed it into the van and before the count of five, he'd used the pin to finish picking the lock, pulled Nate into the back room of warehouse and shut the door before the grenades blew up with a bang.

They stood there, not speaking, catching their breaths.

Nate leaned against some pallets of dried dog food. "We should split up. We're still conspicuous when we're together. We can radio for pick-up as soon as we find secure locations."

Brad hesitated. Not because he disagreed with Nate, but because suddenly he wasn't eager for the op to be over. It had been a long time since he'd had this high.

"Right. Of course. You want this," Nate said in the continued silence that followed, holding out the flash drive. "You were worried I was going to take off with it and carry it back to the cartel."

"What?"

Nate tossed him the drive. "Go on, take it. That's why you followed me down into the alley, isn't it. You still don't trust me."

Brad looked down at the flash drive and then back up at Nate, finally understanding what the fuck he was talking about. Brad held the flash drive back out to Nate. "I followed you down here because there was no way I was going to lose another platoon commander because I didn't have his six. It's a question of trust, sir, but not of how much I trust you."

Nate stood there staring. "What are you talking about?"

"Nothing," Brad replied tersely. When Nate didn't move, Brad grabbed his hand, warm and solid, and put the drive in his palm.

Nate finally accepted it back. "Brad. Tell me."

Brad started winding his way through the darkened storage room. "You're right, we should get going. It's not going to take the cops long to figure out where we went."

"Brad." Nate stopped him with a firm grip on his arm, turning him back around.

"What do you want from me?" Brad replied. "I just wanted to make sure you were alive and well enough to go back to your former life when this was all over."

"You're that eager to get rid of me?" Nate asked with a hurt expression on his face.

"I didn't say that."

"Then what makes you think I'm leaving?"

Brad paused as he reached the loading dock. There was another exit there that came out on the other side of the block. They could be picked up as soon as it was clear.

"Brad?"

Brad paused after he'd checked that they wouldn't set off any fire alarms. "Why would you stay?"

"You're fucking driving me crazy, you know that right?" Nate said, pinning him up against the wall, slowly sinking toward him until they were barely inches apart. "Can't you answer the fucking question?"

Nate smelled like sweat and cordite. Brad swallowed past the lump in his throat. "Yes."

"Why do you think I'm leaving?"

"Platoon commanders don't seem to stick around too long with me."

Nate's brow crunched up in thought. "When? Afghanistan?"

Escape seemed unlikely. Brad could probably push Nate aside, though he wasn't entirely sure they would both leave unscathed. Nate seemed to have this steel stubborn core within him that was exerting itself more and more. Or maybe Brad was only starting to really know him. Either way, standing this close to him, trapped by Nate's stare, Brad finally nodded.

The memories of that night slowly seeped back into his consciousness. The name escaped his mouth as if drawn by silent command. "Captain Morrison."

Nate's face relaxed in understanding. "I heard about it. I hadn't realized that was your unit."

"It's a small world." The flashes of artillery fire still played behind Brad's eyes, the chatter of helicopter blades and machine guns still echoed in his ears.

"Maybe. But that wasn't your fault. I read the analysis on the mission afterward. You guys were outnumbered five to one. You're damn lucky to have gotten out alive."

"It doesn't matter. He wasn't supposed to be the one clearing the alleyway; not alone."

With a sigh, Nate ran a finger across Brad's jawline. "I'm not leaving, Brad. Maybe I should, maybe this thing between us is so fucked up, it'll interfere with our jobs, but I hope not. I think for the first time in my life, I have exactly what I want—as long as I'm not too chicken-shit to take it."

Brad stilled. Nate's breath was warm against his neck, slowly drawing him out of the nightmare, the proximity as intoxicating as the words, slowly lessening the tightening in his chest. "Say again?"

"Which part? About me being chicken-shit?" A crooked smile played on Nate's lips.

"The part about what you want."

"The part about you?"

Brad finally dared to bring his hand up to Nate's face, grabbed him with enough force to leave bruises tomorrow and brought him forward; lips and sweat and dirt all mingling together as he kissed him. Nate's lips were dry and warm and inviting.

When Nate finally eased back, Brad rested his forehead on Nate's head. "Then what the fuck was that about last night? You blew me then you push me away?"

Nate gave him a small, nervous laugh. "Then you tied me up. Can we call it even and start over?"

Brad grabbed Nate's chin and brought his lips back. This kiss was deeper, Brad's tongue flicking Nate's lips, teasing him until Nate responded with a shudder.

Threading his fingers through Nate's short hair, Brad grabbed and held on, turning them around until Nate was the one pinned against the wall. Brad leaned toward Nate's ear. "You don't get off easy, either. Why did you freak out on me?"

"I ..." Nate said, stuttering as Brad brought his hand down and started rubbing Nate's cock through his pants. He was already so hard, Brad ached to touch him. "You know. Don't ask, don't tell, don't do, don't touch. I tried to fit in."

"We're a fine, fucked up pair," Brad said with a laugh. "I have abandonment issues and you're still half in the closet."

Nate groaned into Brad's shoulder as Brad palmed his cock. With his heart hammering harder than in any firefight, Brad opened Nate's pants and slid his hand in, feeling the length of Nate's erection so hot and hard, never taking his eyes off Nate's face. "Let me do this for you."

The look on Nate's face almost wrecked Brad completely. There was want and desperation there, but more. "We have to go. The cops..."

Nate had a core of steel; Brad had no doubt about that. There was no questioning his integrity. But somewhere mixed in with it was this last self-denial, this last seed of self-doubt demanded from years of service that Brad suddenly needed to obliterate from existence.

"They won't start the search until they get the fire under control. I can get us out."

Nate swallowed and then gave a curt nod as Brad raked his hands down Nate's legs, dragging his pants down as he went. Brad broke eye contact only so he could trace the hard curve of Nate's cock with his lips, from tip to base. The tremble in Nate's thigh broke something deep inside Brad's chest.

Nate swore as his body shook, then grabbed the back of Brad's head and dragged him up.

"I want to look at you," Nate stammered. "I want to feel you come too, I want to do this with you."

Brad quickly undid his pants, guiding Nate's hand down to his own cock before sliding his hand back on Nate's.

They fell against each other as they stroked, Nate's dick, hard and amazing in his hand, Nate panting in his ear, and the heat all around them, gathering them up and bringing them together.

Nate's eyes were so dark, so fixated on Brad's, that there was nowhere else to look.

"Brad," Nate panted, half begging, half asking, and with his other hand, Brad cupped Nate's balls, lined their bodies up so he could hold both their cocks in one hand and jerk them off together. Nate's hands encircled his own as Nate bit back a scream, his whole body convulsing, spilling hot, warm wetness all over Brad's hands, driving Brad that last bit over the edge until they were falling apart together, desperately clinging to each other.

And the devastation didn't end.

"That was..." Nate trailed off, as they leaned against each other, panting.

Brad nodded in response, unable to feel his legs, because it felt like he was fucking floating. "Yeah."

They stood there for minutes, Brad's eyes tracing the lines of Nate's face, Nate content to let Brad do his recon, offering up new territory and contours with every minute shift of his body.

Returning back to the present, Brad realized that, judging by the sounds, there was a lot of activity on the street outside. "I think our escape is blocked for now."

"You mean we get to hole up in here for a while?" Nate asked, a wicked grin slowly spreading across his face.

Brad eyed the warehouse and the offices on a level above. "I think we can probably find somewhere suitable to lay low for a bit."

 


Warehouse, Outskirts of Boston, MA

The party was in full swing by the time they showed up at HQ. Smoke was thick in the air, a stereo was belting out tunes, Ray had a keg hooked up to the soda dispenser, and even Godfather was toasting everyone's success amongst a cacophony of sounds.

"Godfather would like to congratulate everyone on an amazing job..."

"CIA can suck my big fat dick."

"Anyone seen Kocher?"

"Yeah, but who'll clean up the fucking mess?"

"Shut up, dawg," Poke said with a large stogie in his mouth while smacking Lilley upside the head, "or it'll be you."

"'Bout time you guys showed up," Ray said, slapping Brad on the back while passing them both a bottle of beer. "I was beginning to think you were enjoying a party without us!"

Lady Gaga started belting out tunes and then Ray was off as quickly as he'd come by, dragging Walt behind him as he climbed up on the roof of Poke's truck.

"I've been meaning to ask. Are they..." Nate started as Ray danced, mimicking the video to 'Poker Face' surprisingly well.

"Don't," Brad said, basking in the newness of having Nate standing next to him with such a relaxed, open expression on his face. "We have our own Don't Ask policy here. Mostly to save ourselves the mental images."

Nate continued to stare at them, mouth hanging open slightly. Brad threaded his fingers through Nate's and tugged him in close.

Suddenly, there was a loud ruckus in the back of the warehouse that drew everyone's attention.

"Holy fuck! Patterson just decked Encino Man."

"No fucking way!"

"'Bout time someone did."

Everyone seemed to shift in the direction of the brawl, Brad forcing his way through the crowd with Nate discreetly in tow. Someone had seen fit to turn off the music, and everyone's attention was focused on the scene.

"What the fuck happened?" Brad turned to Lovell.

Before Lovell could answer, Bravo-Three pulled into the warehouse.

"Good Lord! Thank God you're all alive." Dave McGraw jumped out of the Hummer running toward them. Encino Man left the scene nursing his face, Griego following close behind while most of the men jeered, all under the disapproving eye of Godfather.

"Where the fuck have you guys been?" Brad turned to Kocher who was also getting out of the Hummer. He looked exhausted.

"You wouldn't fucking believe me if I told you," Kocher replied. Dave had made his way to them and suddenly enveloped Nate in a bear hug.

"I thought you were dead, amigo. I heard it on the comms when the yacht was blown sky high. I thought you were all fucking dead."

Brad firmly detached McGraw from Nate and settled him back down on his feet. "You made it to Jersey?"

"My uncle has a few connections still. He got us released from custody. As soon as we were out, we headed to the rendezvous."

"Then where the fuck where you? We could have used some help securing the scene," Brad said. Another team would have been useful. Maybe they could have had fucking eyes on the entrance to the bay.

Dave shook his head. "Sorry. I was ordered to proceed south to cut them off in Atlantic City."

There was a ripple of confusion through the crowd as everyone's eyes cut to Godfather who was looking less and less impressed with the whole evening.

"Godfather ordered no such thing," Godfather said slowly, gesturing to some men standing off to the side. The next thing Brad knew, they were standing on the perimeter of the crowd, arms crossed in front of their chests. "Where did you get these comms?"

Dave pulled the Bluetooth earpiece out of his ear, and Brad saw right away it wasn't standard issue. "I found it in the Laundromat and kept it as a souvenir. I reprogrammed it with our encryption protocols; I don't understand what the problem is."

"The encryption protocols I found in the yacht?" Nate said with a grimace. There was silence as the implications percolated through the crowd.

Suddenly Kocher rounded on McGraw, stopped from landing a punch by one of Godfather's men. "You son of a bitch. I told you to get rid of those. Instead, you were telling the cartel every move we made."

Godfather gave a curt nod of his head and his men grabbed Dave, Kocher and the rest of the team that had gotten out of the Hummer and started escorting them away.

"Wait!" Brad yelled, trying to go after his friend. Nate was barely able to stop him.

"Not now, Brad," Nate said. "Give them some time, then I'll go see if I can help."

"Godfather will have them blacklisted. He'll lump Kocher and the guys in with McGraw and that'll be it. No one in the intelligence community will touch them after that."

Pulling out his cell phone, Nate quickly punched in a number. "Godfather still has to report to the oversight committee. It's your turn to trust me."

Brad shook off Nate's arm and watched everyone slowly start dispersing from the scene. There were a lot of angry mutterings. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Patterson leaving as well, his face angry and set.

Brad ran to catch up with him. "Are you okay?"

Patterson turned back. "I can't do this anymore Brad. I've had enough of this shit, and enough of watching good people get fucked by the incompetence of the men leading them. We're not in the Corps anymore. We don't have to put up with this. I'm through." He shook Brad's hand. "Take care of yourself. I suspect this is it for Godfather's little operation, but who knows. I've been wrong before."

Brad stood by himself as Patterson left and listened and watched everyone else. With a sinking feeling, he realized that Patterson was probably right. Now that the op was over and the celebration cut short, there were angry mutterings everywhere.

"Yo bro, we can get double doing private consulting," Q-Tip was saying to Christenson as they went back to their vehicle.

"Wanna come visit?" Poke said to Brad as he passed by. "The kids would love to see you."

"You too?" Brad replied looking around, helplessly. It hurt and angered him to see such potential wasted. And even with all the shit they had to deal with, they had fucked up the Leon cartel.

"I don't know man. You really think anyone's going to listen to anything brass has to say after this? The cancer has spread, Brad. There's no fucking therapy that's going to wash it away. Things will never be the same."

"Fuck that," Brad replied. "I'm not letting all you fuckers off that easily."

"What are going to do?" Poke asked. "Tie everyone down? Force everyone to stay?"

Brad turned around and searched the crowd. In the corner he saw Nate watching the crowd as well, a concerned look on his face. Brad sent him a silent plea, begging him to do something. Brad didn't have eloquence, not with Godfather, not with senators. He could get shit done, but he needed someone to make sure there was shit that needed doing. That's the other reason he'd never applied for the job.

Nate met his eyes, then gave him a nod.

That was the last Brad saw of him for eleven days.

 

Epilogue

Brad forced himself to exhale. There was very little point in holding his breath when the news was inevitable. Nate was standing in front of them, looking like the world had changed. His hair was cut short, and he was sporting a suit and tie.

It was a good look, just not one Brad would have expected.

"Well, gentlemen," Nate said holding up a blank manila envelope. Everyone was crowded in the back of Mr. Frosty: Brad, Ray, Walt, Trombley and Nate. Poke was standing at the serving window, and Doc, Pappy and Lovell were sitting in the front seat. The air was heavy with impatience. "It's official. You are all now independently owned and operated."

Ray leaned forward and snatched the envelope from Nate's hands in the stunned silence that followed. "No fucking way."

"It's true," Nate said with a smile. "After all the goatfucks in the last op, I managed to convince Godfather that the true effectiveness of his operation lay in having fully independent teams."

"So we're not disbanded?" Pappy asked.

Nate shook his head. "Far from it. I have orders for your next mission in fact."

"But what does that mean?" Brad asked from his spot in the back. This wasn't what he'd been expecting. The last two weeks had been filled with theories and hypotheses from the guys who had stuck around the HQ and not gone on liberty, but none of them had really taken this possibility into account. Honestly, most of them had believed they'd end up back in the Corps.

"It means that you're in charge of your own team, Brad. Same with you Lovell, Poke and Pappy. Godfather will give you a budget to handle the food, supplies and maintenance on the vehicles but it'll be up to you to take care of things as you see fit. From your budget, you'll pay your guys, which means they work for you. You can hire or retain services as you need, or if people want to move on, you can release them and hire someone new. Although, I suspect with this new arrangement, there won't be too many openings."

"Wait. No more Encino Man?" Ray practically squealed.

"Schwetje has been reassigned to co-ordinate with the oversight committee," Nate said with a grimace. "Senator Rundle will have his hands full getting any sort of coherent answer from him, but I suppose that's Godfather's point. Also McGraw has decided to pursue other employment..."

Ray threw himself backwards against Walt, in a mock faint. Walt rolled him over and left him on the floor without cracking a smile, and not for the first time, Brad wondered what had happened on the trip they had taken. Walt and Ray had been roaming the Midwestern United States for the last eight days, but both of them refused to talk about what had passed or the reason for the matching tribal tattoos on their arms.

"As far as I know, McGraw is opening up his own close, personal security business for celebrities and rock stars."

"What about you?" Brad asked, perfectly still as he waited on the answer. Nate had said your mission. Not ours.

Nate gave him a smile. "I'm your team's liaison with Godfather. All missions and ops will come through me. Also, I will co-ordinate any third party comms or logistics you might require."

"So you are staying?" The exhale was involuntary now as a smile spread across Brad's face.

"I'm staying."

Ray tackled Nate's leg. "Does this mean you're still riding with us?"

Nate eyes were only on Brad and Brad felt the ball loosen in his stomach. "I'd love to ride with you guys when the time is right, but let's face it, it's a little crowded in here. Schwetje had a red Mustang he was willing to give me for a good price. As you may recall, it needs an engine, front struts, radiator, front engine mount, not to mention some cosmetic work, but I think it'll work nicely in the end."

"But..." Ray trailed off looking around them all. "We could always fire Trombley."

"Hey," Trombley said in protest.

"It's okay," Brad said with a nod. And it was. He had to admit that having Nate in the vehicle on the last op had proved a bit of a distraction. Having Nate in his ear and in his bed was the best of both worlds. "Will you have any staff? I can't imagine you driving yourself around all the time."

Nate chuckled. "Turns out, Mike Wynn's looking for a job and he said he wouldn't mind riding shotgun. Also, I managed to talk Christeson and Stafford out of self-employment. They've agreed to be my guns, should I need any. I think it'll work out nicely."

"He wear no shoeshine" Ray started by tapping a beat against his leg. "He got toe-jam football, he got monkey-finger, he shoot Coca Cola...He say I know you, you know me, one thing I can tell you is you got to be free."

Brad gave Nate a toothy grin and shot him a suggestive look that he could take which ever way he chose. Nate returned it in kind with a slow nod.

"Come together, Right now. Over me."