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Coming Home

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***

“...the worst storm in a decade…”

Drew wasn’t listening to the news report as he sat in the hallway of San Antonio Memorial Hospital, his back propped against the wall between a supply cart and an empty gurney, with his cell phone in his hand.

The screen faded to black and he hit it with his thumb again to keep the text open, to keep the words there where he could see them. He had read them a hundred times, over and over again, but he could hardly believe it. It didn’t seem real. After the night they had, the storm, the death they saw, that he saw.

Some of the team were riding high, Drew couldn’t fault them for that, because there is nothing better than knowing you made the difference that saved someone’s life. His night hadn’t been such a high, but low blow after low blow. DOA. DOA. DOA. Some impossible to save, all he could do was make their last few minutes as painless as possible and be there until their consciousness faded. It was the longest night he’d had in a while, longer than the trek it took to get Charlie to safety a few weeks earlier. That night had been a high, despite almost losing the kid.

Drew blinked back tears, willfully forcing them down with sheer stubbornness and refusal to cry in the hallway. It had been a rough night. It could have been worse. He turned the phone over in his hands and stared at the screen, reading the words again.

“Hi, honey,” Krista found him there and settled on her knees next to him, her head resting on his arm. “How was your day?”

“I got this text from Rick…” He tried to keep his voice under control, tried to keep the emotion back as he turned the phone to her. She was the only one he could share it with here.

[I’ll be home next Thursday afternoon. I can’t wait to see you and eat real food again! R.]

Her face as she read it lifted away the weight of the shift. The smile that spread across her features chased away some of the darkness and the hallway seemed brighter then. More real. “Oh my god, Drew… He’s coming home.”

“Yeah,” Drew couldn’t hold back the smile any more. He took the phone back and read the words again though he memorized them already. “He made it out of there, he’s coming home.”

Krista grinned and she hugged him tight, so happy for him that it took away every bad thing that had happened recently.

“He survived Afghanistan.” He clung back, his phone tight in his hand, and it was all real. Finally, he believed it.

He lost track of how long they sat in the hallway while Drew smiled stupidly at the screen. He knew he looked like a fool to any patients or doctors that passed by, but he couldn’t be bothered to care. Rick was coming home!

***

Drew looked around the barracks at the others who would go through Basic training with him, curious and perhaps a little scared, but ready. Hiding part of himself was second nature- he had a reputation he liked as a tough guy trained in mixed martial arts. He’d hidden it through high school football, kept it out of sight through college ROTC and fraternity life, so the step into the army was easy- don’t ask, don’t tell.

“Hey man,” the blond in the next bunk grinned over at him. “I’m Rick.”

“Drew,” he replied and offered his hand in greeting.

It was all history from there, as they say.

***

“So what are you going to do when he gets back?” Krista walked out to the garage with her arm tucked through Drew’s. “Anything special?”

Drew grinning, “I don’t know yet. I work Thursday night and he has debriefing and everything, so I won’t get to see him until Friday morning.”

“Well you’d better come up with something good, because I want to hear about it!” She laughed as they reached their cars and gave him another hug, her face pressed against his shoulder. “I’m so happy for you.”

“Thanks, Krista,” he smiled as the hug ended and she went to her car. “I’ll see ya tonight.”

“See ya!” The grin never faded from her face as she got in the car and waved before she headed home.

Drew couldn’t tame his own smile as he got in his truck. He was too worked up to head home to sleep, so instead of the usual left he took out of the parking structure he headed west towards the base and Rick’s apartment. At least there he could clean and work out some of the energy that had built up since he got the text message.

It had been a few weeks since he’d been to Rick’s. He tried to go over at least once a month to keep it cleaned up, but the longer Rick was away the harder it was to go over, the more of a reminder it was that Rick was half-a-world away. Even the pillows on their bed didn’t hold his scent after nine months. With only a week until he came home, though, there was plenty to do.

He changed out of his scrubs after digging out one of Rick’s old grey Army shirts and a pair of shorts from a drawer. The shirt was his favorite, soft cotton worn down and broken in from so many years of wear. Even the little hole under the arm made him grin when he remembered the first time Rick noticed it and stuck his finger there to tickle him. Not that Drew will ever admit to being ticklish. Once changed, he started in on the cleaning process.

Laundry was easy. He tossed the sheets and blankets in the wash first thing.

***

“Hey Drew,” Rick hovered uncomfortably in the laundry room two washers down while Drew sorted his clothes.

Drew, a year younger, grinned over at his friend and noticed Rick’s hesitancy. It was rather amusing because Rick was always the one so sure of himself. “Hey man, what’s up?”

Rick wouldn’t look him in the eye as he stumbled over his words, “So. Um, laundry day, hmm?”

The younger soldier laughed. “Yeah, you know how it is. Mom can’t do the laundry forever.”

“Yeah…” Rick looked uncertainly between Drew and the washing machines. “Do you, uh, mind showing me how to use these things? They, um, they’re different than the ones at home.”

They were pretty standard washing machines. Cold, warm, hot. Whites, colors, darks. Nothing complicated. Drew shrugged and left his machines to join Rick. “Sure, no problem.” Rick was quiet as he watched Drew change the settings, almost making the younger man uncomfortable with the attentiveness. “Alright, you’re all set. Soap, sort, and go.”

“Um,” Rick scratched at the scruff on his jaw, and finally Drew understood.

“You’ve never done your own laundry, have you?” He was surprised, he assumed most guys start doing their own laundry around or shortly after puberty, but maybe not.

“Um.” The other man blushed a soft pink across his cheeks and even his ears turned a dark red in embarrassment. It was highly attractive, and Drew caught his thoughts before they wandered somewhere that would have him blushing too.

Drew just grinned and walked him through the process. “Soap goes in first, a capful if you’re doing a full load. Next is sorting. Whites go in the warm water, colors in the cold. Pretty simple.” He helped Rick toss in the first few shirts for reference, then stepped aside. “You good?”

“Yeah, I think I got it. Thanks.” Rick was much more relaxed now as he followed the steps to sort out his stuff with the occasional grin sent Drew’s way.

“Anytime.” He patted Rick on the shoulder and headed back to finish sorting his own laundry.

***

It had been nearly six years since the first time Rick had done his own laundry and he still hated it. He was the kind of guy who would go out and buy more shirts and underwear so he didn’t have to put a load in the washer. Every time he had to do laundry he would complain about it, and it always made Drew laugh because laundry was something they always did together so Rick would enjoy it a bit more. More often than not it ended up with Drew bent over this very machine with his boyfriend pressed up against him, but sometimes they would be in the reverse positions, or one of them would end up on his knees… he smiled to himself and finished loading the washing machine, then headed back into the kitchen.

Drew had emptied and unplugged the refrigerator the day after Rick shipped out, and all the perishables had gone to his own apartment to be eaten so they wouldn’t go to waste. The pantry was pretty scarce as well, so he took some time to write out a list of what he would need to pick up before Rick got home Thursday. Apples were at the top of the list, the big Fuji apples that Rick couldn’t get enough of.

There was a picture of the two of them with a bushel of apples on the fridge, one of his favorite pictures of them from their vacation last fall, tucked among pictures of Rick’s nieces and nephews. Drew hadn’t been able to get the time off work for a trip to Hawaii, but he managed to surprise Rick with a weekend away in northern Arkansas.

***

”Look, I know it isn’t our normal type of vacation, but I promise you’ll like it.” Drew put on his best puppy eyes for his reluctant boyfriend, the irresistible trick he only pulled out when he really needed to.

Rick looked over his shoulder from the stove and sighed when he saw the look, and the doctor knew he’d won. “I hate it when you look at me like that.”

“I know,” he grinned and went around the island to hug Rick from behind. “But I promise you’ll like where we’re going.”

“It’s a B&B. Like my grandmother would go to when she and grandpa used to go on vacations.” The reluctance was still obvious in his voice, but he wasn’t outright fighting him on it, either.

“There’s a B&B on the south side of the property,” Drew corrected as he stepped away to get plates down for the omelettes Rick was cooking. “We get the one cabin on the north side of the property with our own kitchen and hiking trails, with no one around for miles.” There was another major draw factor that Drew knew Rick would love, but he wanted it to be a surprise so he kept his mouth shut about the one thing that would get his partner to agree in an instant: apple orchards during apple season.

Drew was proved right a month later when they drove onto the property from the south entrance to check-in. “Those are apples… why didn’t you tell me?” Rick’s eyes were wide, like a child on their first visit to Disneyland.

The doctor just laughed. “You can pick as many as you can eat. That’s part of the weekend package.”

“You’re the best!” Rick leaned over to kiss him before shooing him out to get them checked-in. Drew was fairly certain his partner’s thought process included ‘the sooner they reached the cabin, the sooner they could have apples.’

***

“I should call and see if I can get that place for a weekend again…” Drew’s thoughts weren’t about the apples, but wrapped up around how Rick tasted like apples the day they had hiked up to the hot springs and gotten entirely distracted with each other in the quiet remoteness of their corner of the forest.

With a smile and a faint blush across his cheeks in the empty apartment, Drew finished the shopping and to-do lists for the week. At the bottom of the list was scrawled ‘Friday morning omelettes and hiking.’