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Nate gets up late on Sunday morning. He's glad he remembered to set the coffeemaker and drinks two cups while he reads the New York Times cover to cover. It was something he used to do with his dad and it's nice to return to a ritual like that. By the time he bothers to check his phone, it's after noon. There are two messages, both from the same number.

"Yo, LT. It seems the Iceman doesn't have your number in his phone. I can see why you might not want him to have it because who wants that mopey ass motherfucker calling you to talk about taking a shit or whatever you two chat about but it seems wrong SINCE YOU'RE LEAVING US. Which, by the way, is fucked, sir. And another thi -"

Nate shakes his head and hits delete. He knows Bravo's not happy with his decision, but it's the right one. Most of the men have been pretty open about telling him exactly what they think. He thumbs down to the next message.

"Again, sir, I find myself apologizing for Person's whiskey tango lack of social skills. But I suppose in his ass backwards way, he did accomplish his task. Rest assured I've cut off his access to the tequila, everyone's personal electronics, and any stray firearms."

He saves Brad's number, deletes the message, and forces himself not to look at his phone for the rest of the day.

*

A week later, Nate's walking out to his car. The box in his hands isn't that heavy, but he feels like it should weigh a ton. His desk is cleared out, papers signed. As of twenty minutes ago, he is no longer a Marine.

The last couple of days, he's stayed away from the platoon. They have a new Captain and he knows they need time to adjust to that. And if he's being honest with himself, Nate needs time to adjust his own thinking. They aren't his men anymore and even though he knows they're all perfectly capable of taking care of themselves, he's not sure he trusts that they'll survive their next deployment. Shit rolls downhill and he's not standing in between them and the storm anymore.

He's halfway home when his phone buzzes with a text message. At the next red light, he flips his phone open. It's from Brad.

Went by your office, but you were already gone. Your presence is required at Bennett's. If you don't show up by 8, Person says he's coming to your house. You don't want that.

He doesn't reply until he pulls into his driveway, the engine clicking softly as it cools down.

I don't think my neighbors will appreciate Ray's singing voice as much as you seem to. I'll be there.

Nate carries the box inside and leaves it by the door. He gathers up a bunch of things from his desk - old duty rosters, copies of after actions that he brought home, his base ID card - and dumps them inside, taping it shut. With a thick black marker he writes OFFICE across the top and shoves it back out of the way. One box packed and ready to go.

*

Bennett's Pub is loud - there's music playing and it's crowded with noisy Marines looking to blow off steam from a long week. The younger ones that recognize him give him a respectful nod as he passes, working his way to one of the big back rooms where he knows Bravo likes to hold court.

"You should get a real drink before you go back there. All those plebes have been guzzling pitchers of whatever's on special."

Brad materializes at his nine, his voice cutting through the din of the bar. He's dressed in civvies and Nate stops himself from looking Brad up and down. He's just not used to seeing Brad in anything but some version of a uniform. At least that's what he's telling himself as he turns and gives Brad a brief smile.

"Thanks for the intel. I made it a policy not to drink cheap beer after I left Dartmouth."

"Because you became an officer? Conduct unbecoming if you're seen swilling Coors Light with the grunts?" Brad's teasing him, but Nate can feel the edge of something else there too, like he's not saying what he really would like to.

But Nate's not going to rise to the bait. "No, because that shit is even worse coming back up than it is going down," he replies, stepping up to the bar and ordering a whiskey and Coke. "And another of whatever he's drinking," Nate adds, nodding at Brad.

"Thanks, sir," Brad says, draining the end of the bottle he's holding and setting the empty on the bar. His shoulder brushes Nate's and they stand there in companionable silence until the bartender comes back. Nate drops some cash on the bar and pushes Brad's beer toward him.

"You don't have to call me that anymore," he says, pulling the little straw out of his drink and flipping it across his knuckles before dropping it on the bar. "As of fifteen hundred hours today, I am retired from the Marine Corps." It's the first time he's said it out loud and it rolls off his tongue easier than he thought it would.

His breath stutters when Brad's hand drops onto the back of his neck. It's a gesture of comfort, one he's seen Brad give to Ray, to Walt, to Tony a hundred times. His palm is warm and Nate wants to arch into it. But he can't - even if they weren't in a bar full of other Marines, Nate couldn't. At least now he can admit to himself how much he wants to.

Instead, he straightens up and shrugs off Brad's touch. "And that means my officer's salary no longer covers everyone's drinks. I think I'm going to let the grunts pay for me this time."

Brad snorts, but his smile is genuine. "Then you better enjoy that whiskey. It's going to be the last decent thing you ingest all night." He winks and Nate follows him back to the rest of the platoon.

*

The paddle party is a success insofar as Nate doesn't get overemotional in front of the men, does get completely and totally wasted, and somehow ends up in his own bed. He's wearing his t-shirt and boxers, his jeans folded neatly on the chair and his shoes lined up neatly next to the door. The blinds are partly open and Nate squints as he rolls onto his stomach. His head is pounding, but he doesn't think he's going to throw up. Mark one in the win column.

There's a large bottle of water on his dresser, along with the ibuprofen from his bathroom cabinet. It takes a few moments of struggle, but Nate gets to his feet. He shakes out four pills and drinks down more than half the water in one go. When he sets the bottle down, he sees the note. It's written in Brad's precise, spiky cursive.

I was tasked by Gunny to get you home in one piece. I had to fight off Stafford and Christeson who wanted to cart you home in the back of Stafford's pickup. It would have been a tragedy for you to make it out of the Corps just to end up getting bounced out of the back of that rusted piece of shit and splatted across the pavement in Oceanside. Rudy recommended some kind of Chinese tea for your hangover, but I've found large quantities of coffee and bacon work just as well.
B

Nate stumbles back to bed, taking the rest of the water with him. He dimly recalls the last round of tequila shots. It was just him, Ray, and Gabe left. Mike was somewhere close, yelling at Baptista about something and Brad had been standing in the kitchen, watching them as he nursed a beer. "Come on, motherfuckers. Double shots and we can finish off this bottle," Ray said, his eyes bright.

He'd come to Nate earlier that night and confessed he hadn't reupped either. "It's too fucking much, sir. I don't think I handle that bullshit again."

"Ray, you've done your duty. Never think you didn't," Nate reassured him. Ray's eyes cut to Brad and Nate shook his head. "He'll understand, Ray. He's not actually made of ice."

"You ain't kidding, sir. I mean, Nate. Fuck, I don't have to call you sir anymore. That is fucking awesome," Ray exclaimed, slinging his arm around Nate's neck. "That means we are doing fucking shots. A lot of them. Starting now. Gabe, you dirty fucking Mexican - find me all the tequila we've got. We're gonna get stupid."

"Too late for that, Ray," Walt yelled and Ray flipped him off as he dragged Nate inside. Something prickled the back of his neck and he looked up to see Brad watching him and Ray. He gave Brad a half shrug and Brad just shook his head.

After that, Nate lost track of time. He's pretty sure they went through at least two bottles, possibly with food in between round one and round two. Flopping back on the bed, he throws his arm over his eyes and stretches out his legs. A disjointed image floats through his memory - Brad on one knee at the edge of his bed, voice soft and urging.

"Nate, come on. Lift your hips. You can't sleep in your jeans. They smell like the floor of a Tijuana shithole." His blunt fingers were at Nate's waistband and Nate remembers biting his lip hard enough to make it bleed just to keep whatever his drunken mouth was about to say inside. He pushed Brad's hands away and wriggled out of his jeans and kicked them toward the floor. Brad's laugh was low and raspy and it made something in Nate's chest curl tight.
"Okay, well, that's done then."

"Jesus fucking Christ," he says out loud. This is stupid. He's done, leaving Oceanside in a week and going home to figure what to do with his life. He and Brad are friends and no matter what else he might want, Brad is still a Marine. Nate refuses to allow his feelings to compromise either of those things. Dragging himself back up, he heads to the shower. Those boxes aren't going to pack themselves.

*
To: natefick77@gmail.com
From: bcolbert@gmail.com
Subject: Do they actually teach retardese at OCS?

Honestly, I can't come up with any other logical explanation for the complete and utter fuck ups we keep running up against. The new Captain is fine, competent enough, but it's going to get harder and harder for him to keep from buckling under the pressure. This place is a bigger clusterfuck now than it was when we left.

I'm even bored and pissed off enough to want to hear about all the bourgeois liberal bullshit you must be doing in between lazing around in your parents' cushy house. You decide what you're going to do next?

Brad

 

To: bcolbert@gmail.com
From: natefick77@gmail.com
Subject: Re: Do they actually teach retardese at OCS?

To the best of my knowledge, that's not one of the language options available to incoming officer candidates. Maybe it's a specialty course that wasn't offered to me?

It can't be as bad as all that. Is it that you miss Ray serenading you? I'm sure he'd be happy to send you some songs if it becomes just too much to bear. You're still in the hurry up and wait phase. I know telling you to have a little bit of patience is futile, but it's the best I can do from here. Let these new officers prove themselves - none of us were perfect, not even me. Especially not me, I think.

Stay frosty.

Nate

When Nate looks in the mirror, he only half recognizes the person looking back at him. His hair is longer than regulation and even though he's gained back some of the weight he lost, he's still too lean. Rangy, his father calls it when his mother clucks over him and tries to feed him six times a day. Nate lets her get away with four times, even if he feeds half his sandwiches to the dog they got while he was away.

Sleeping in his childhood bedroom seems so incongruous to him after all the things he's done, the places he's been. There's just no way to put his life in the Corps into context for people that haven't been there. He's restless and spends some days feeling so removed from what's happening on the other side of the world that it when he wakes up in the middle of the night, he's sure it was all a dream.

Those are the nights Nate slips on his go-fasters, tucks a house key in his sock and runs. He runs for miles in the quiet Maryland dark, concentrating on the slap of his feet on the pavement and the burn in his lungs. It's mid morning in Iraq and he knows that if there's going to be an e-mail from Brad or on the rare occasions, Mike, that's when he's going to get it.

He runs until his lungs give out and slips silently back into the house. He's not counting on his father being in the kitchen when he ducks in to grab a bottle of water before heading back upstairs.

"Dad," he says, stepping around him.

"You've been doing this a lot. Disappearing in the middle of the night." It's not a question, but a statement of fact.

Nate chugs the water in one go, the plastic crinkling in his hand. He tosses the empty bottle toward the bin and swipes his arm across his forehead. "It's fine. I'm being careful. I stay on the roads, run with the traffic. Not like there's much anyway."

He can see the struggle in his father's face. He wants to help and in the past, he might have been able to. But what's going on with him - dealing with leaving the Marines and whatever this thing is with Brad - those are things Nate knows he's got to deal with on his own.

"Your mother said you've been looking at graduate schools. I know a few people that can give you some recommendations, if you want. And you can always go to law school," he says, clapping Nate on the shoulder. His father loves him, Nate knows that. So Nate wants to give him this, something to hold onto.

"That'd be great, Dad. I'll let you know where I'm considering and we'll go from there." That seems to be enough and his father nods.

"Double check you locked that back door. Your mother's always forgetting it," his father says as he heads back upstairs.

In his room, Nate lets his computer boot up while he takes a fast shower. The unlimited hot water still feels like a luxury and he stands under the hot spray and lets it beat down on his back and shoulders for a minute, hoping the tension will seep out of his muscles. He palms his cock, considering, but doesn't do anything more than that.

Wrapped in a towel, he opens his e-mail.

To: natefick77@gmail.com
From: bcolbert@gmail.com
Subject: Moving Day

Got news this morning. We expect to be oscar mike in 48. Still not properly supplied, but we'll make do. Gunny says Cara knows to call you if there's any news.

I can't help but wish you were here. I know that's pretty fucking selfish of me, but facts are facts.

I'll be back in touch the next time it's feasible.

Brad

Nate's hands shake a little as he types.

To: bcolbert@gmail.com
From: natefick77@gmail.com
Subject: Re: Moving Day

I know telling you to be safe is useless. Do your best to avoid burning dogs.

I'll wait for an update. I'd rather hear from you than Cara.

Nate

Once he hits send, Nate pulls on his clothes and drives to the all night Wal-Mart. The girl at the register doesn't bother to hide her confused look as he unloads the packages of adult diapers, packs of batteries, cans of dip, and packs of baby wipes onto the belt. At the last minute, he throws in the latest issue of Wired too. He packs it up in the car and sits in a coffee shop until it's late enough to call in a favor from a friend at the base at Quantico. The hour long drive gives him enough time to think that this is a stupid idea and change his mind five times, but he never turns the car back around. In the parking lot, he scribbles the note on a page torn from the back of an old road atlas.

They don't sell LSA at Wal-Mart, so you'll have to make do with this stuff instead. Hopefully, this will get to you in time.

N

Folding it, he seals it in bank deposit envelope and tapes the box shut. Jim is jogging out of the gate and toward him. Nate gets out and waves.

"You're lucky we've got a run going over there this morning," he says to Nate, skipping the pleasantries. "I'm not going to bother to ask how you know the platoon's movements."

Nate nods. "Thanks for that. But you know how it is over there. And shit, this might not get there in time anyway. But...I had to try."

"Understood," he says, taking the box. "I'll do my best to make sure it gets to where it needs to be. You owe me a drink for this. Hell, you owe me a few."

"Consider it done," Nate agrees.

When he gets home, the house is empty. Nate falls into bed and sleeps without dreaming.

*

To: natefick77@gmail.com
From: bcolbert@gmail.com
Subject: Thank you

Improving morale has nothing to do with the grooming standard and everything to do with unscented baby wipes. The aloe was a nice touch.

Last contact for a while. See you on the other side.

B
*

"There are men in the trees."

Nate's eyes snap open. He's drenched in icy sweat, the air conditioning making the sheets stick to him. His hand gropes for his weapon and he can feel his heart racing. When his vision clears, he realizes he's staring at the ceiling of a hotel room in Virginia and not the clear Iraqi sky.

"Fuck," he says, and if the laugh he lets out after sounds a little hysterical, there's no one else to hear it. It takes another minute before he can uncurl his fist from the blanket and sit up. Across the room, his cell is blinking that he has voicemail.

He didn't hear anything for more than a month until Cara called. When she told him the platoon had been hit, it was all he could do to get back on the road and get to the base. The scenarios running thought his head were always going to be worse than the actuality. At least that's what he had to keep telling himself.

She didn't call again after he left Pappy's ceremony and when Nate called Pendleton, no one could give him any straight answers on the platoon's status, who else was injured, if there were other casualties. Just a polite bit of double talk from the kid on the desk. "I'm very sorry, Captain, but we have no further sitrep at this time. There should be more information after 0600."

Nate drove back to the hotel, conned the bartender downstairs into selling him a full bottle of Jack Daniel's and drank until he couldn't keep his eyes open anymore. But that dream, the smell of cordite and the thundering of rounds in his ears and Brad's voice, steely and cold, through the radio cut through the haze.

He gets to his feet and heads to the bathroom. He lets the tap run until it's icy and gulps down a glass full before he stops shaking. The false adrenaline from the dream is dropping and he can breathe evenly again. But that blue light is still blinking at him from the dresser.

Instead of going to listen to it, he drops to the floor and does push ups on his knuckles. It makes him think of Rudy and he gets to two hundred and twelve before he drops down flat. Nothing on that carpet can be as bad as some of the other places he's laid his head in the past year. He doesn't move until he hears his phone vibrating dully above him.

The caller ID is restricted.

"Hello?"

"You're out of breath." Brad's voice sounds raw, even across the tinny line of the sat phone he must be calling from. Nate's heart drops into his stomach and his hand curls around the phone tighter.

"Push ups. Have to keep in shape even though I'm a bullshit civilian now," he answers, trying for levity and failing completely.

Brad chuckles. "Nice to know you're still burning the candle at both ends, Nate."

There are a million things he wants to know, but this isn't the time to press for details. He tries for straightforward information. "Are you hurt?"

"Some shrapnel caught me in the upper thigh. Nothing I couldn't handle in the field, but they yanked me as soon as Doc could yell over me. One bit's pretty deep, so they had to put me in a bird." Brad's trying to sound detached, like he's talking about someone else. "They're sending us home. Pulled us all out."

Nate can't help but be relieved. But he also knows Brad wouldn't appreciate that sentiment at the moment. "ETA?"

He can almost see Brad's half shrug. "It's the Marines. Could be a few days if they don't have us cool our heels in Germany to debrief. Could be a week or more."

"Right," Nate says. "I was at Pappy's ceremony today. Cara called me on the way there."

The line crackles and there's noise in the background. "Mike thought she might do that." He clears his throat. "I should pass this phone off. Couple other guys need to check in at home too and this is my second call."

"Yeah, of course." Nate's hands clench again and he has to force them to relax.

"I just wanted to keep you in the loop. No reason for you to be calling all hysterical," he says and Nate smiles. "I guess I'll be seeing my bike again sooner than I thought."

"I expect so," Nate answers. "Take care of yourself, Brad."

"And you, Nate."

The line goes dead. Nate leaves his phone on the nightstand and falls back into a restless sleep until his 9am wake up call.

*

Three Saturdays later, he's driving down a quiet side street in Oceanside. He came straight from the airport and his rental car smells a little like smoke and cheap aftershave. The house is at the at the end of cul de sac and the garage is standing open when Nate pulls into the driveway. He cuts the engine and wipes his damp palms on his jeans before he gets out.

Brad's lying on the ground, tightening something near the back of his bike. "Guess you found the place okay," he says, giving the nut one last hard turn before sitting up. There's a smudge of grease down his jaw and Nate's vision doubles and sees Brad covered in dust and sand, climbing out from under a Humvee, flakes of tar covering his hands and face.

"You give adequate directions," Nate says wryly and Brad rolls his eyes. He wipes his hand with a rag and Nate steps forward and offers him a hand up.

"Look at that, you've been out long enough you got your manners back." Brad rolls to his feet easily but Nate doesn't back away.

"I never lost them," he replies, with a smirk. "I just didn't see fit to use them again until now."

At that, Brad grins. "You have a point. Not much room for manners with Marines." He takes Nate's bag. "C'mon. It's a seven hour flight. You need a beer and some food."

*

"I should've known you'd be able to see the ocean from your place," Nate says, finishing his third beer. The sun is sinking into the water, turning the sky pink orange. Brad's feet are propped up on the railing, his own empty hanging from his fingers. "That was my last choice, advanced water training."

Brad chuckles. "And I'm sure they just couldn't wait to tie you up and dump you in the deep end. I thought officers were supposed to be smart." His shoulders are loose and relaxed. There's something almost lazy about him and that's not a state Nate would normally associate with Brad. His cargo shorts have fallen back and Nate can see the edges of pink, healing skin on Brad's thigh.

"You should know better than that by now," he cracks. "I do wish I'd learned to surf or something while I was out here. My brother-in-law is always going on about how great it is."

Brad stretches and when his shirt rides up, Nate has to force himself to look away. "If I can teach Ray, I can teach you. And since you understand how the basic mechanics of standing upright work, you're already one lesson ahead of his retarded ass."

Nate doesn't know how he's supposed to answer that. It's not like he made any other actual plans for this trip. So he just nods, leaning over to take the bottle from Brad's fingers. "Gonna hit the head. You want another?"

"Sure. Fridge is full," he answers, closing his eyes.

Inside, Nate dumps the bottles in the recycling bin before heading down the hall. On his way back, he stops to looks at the two framed photos in the hall. The first one is of Brad and standing with his parents at his graduation from boot camp. He looks so young that Nate can barely reconcile the boy in the photo to the man outside. The other one is from Baghdad, the platoon and Evan. Nate touches the glass, outlining Brad's silhouette and remembering all the ways they all could have died there. All the ways that would have kept this moment from happening.

"Reporter sent it to me," Brad says and Nate doesn't jump. "My mother took it to get framed while I was gone." He's leaning against the wall, and even though it's meant to look casual, Nate can read his body language better than he remembered.

"He sent me one too. It's still in the mailing tube. I can't decide what to do with it."

Brad's eyebrow shoots up. "Why? You worried your new liberal grad school buddies won't want to see how you used to be a certified warmonger?"

"No, because it makes me question myself," Nate says on a sigh. "Whether or not I should have stayed with you - with the platoon. Maybe then..."

Brad's in front of him in three strides, gripping his bicep hard enough to bruise. "Maybe you'd be the one dead instead. And that would not have been an acceptable outcome." Nate's stomach drops when Brad crowds him against the wall. "Nate." He presses their foreheads together. His breath ghosts across Nate's cheek. Nate very deliberately brings one hand up, slipping it underneath the hem of Brad's t-shirt. His skin is warm and Nate's thumb drags over the cut of Brad's hipbone.

"I know," he says and before he can close his mouth, Brad kisses him. It's sloppy, inelegant - exactly the opposite of how Nate imagined he would be. He lets Brad lead, relaxing when one of his hand slides up to cup Nate's jaw. Brad is kissing him like a drowning man gasping for air and Nate lets him, trying to commit this moment to memory.

Nate pulls back, teeth sinking into Brad's lower lip. Brad lets out half a moan and Nate feels some of the tension coiled in him slip away. "Bedroom," he says and Brad nods, keeping his hands firmly on Nate's hips as he walks backward, not willing to stop touching him for the six feet down the hall.

He's not surprised to see that Brad's bed dominates the room. When you spend most of your time sleeping in cramped bunks, ranger graves, and standard issue cots, where you sleep off duty becomes a prized luxury. Nate doesn't stop his laugh when he sees it's made up with precise military corners.

"It's a habit that's hard to break," Brad says, fingers moving down the line of buttons on Nate's shirt. Nate grabs his wrists before he can go any further. "What?"

"We can't go back from this. If we do this, I don't want just one night." He didn't know it was going to come out that way, but Nate doesn't regret saying it. He believes in putting the truth out there and this is no different. If Brad doesn't want the same thing, it's better they both know now.

Brad's eyes close and the disappointment washes over Nate like icy water. He takes a step back and lets go of Brad. "It's all right, Brad. I'm just glad you came home in one piece, that's what matters."

Nate concentrates on getting his shirt buttoned up right as he heads to the door. His shoes are lined up neatly next to Brad's by the door. That tiny slice of domesticity makes his stomach churn. He should have thought this through better. But he went with his gut and flew almost three thousand miles with the belief that whatever was between them could be something more than friendship and certainly more than a one night stand.

He never allowed himself to think about it until they were safely back from Iraq. But once they were, it sat in the back of Nate's mind every day. He had a lot of expectations about what he was going to get out of his time in Corps, but this thing with Brad certainly wasn't one of them.

"Nate." Brad is standing at the end of the hall. His mouth is still red and shiny wet. But Brad won't meet his eyes and that, more than anything else, is what's killing him. He could always rely on being able to get a handle on Brad from their private, silent communication when words either weren't available or allowed. Nate curls his hand around the key to his rental and the edges slice into his palm. When he opens the front door, it feels like the hardest thing he's ever done. "I'll be in town a few more days. You know how to get in touch with me."

*

It's almost five am when his phone starts ringing. He feels for it blindly on the nightstand. When he sees the name on the display, he considers his options before deciding not to answer it.

The air conditioning is turned on too high and Nate climbs out of bed to turn it down. The hotel is decent, but wasn't exactly where he thought he'd be spending the night. He putters around, watching the sky start to lighten with the sunrise. When he glances back at his phone, there's a message.

Fuck, Nate. I don't know how to do this. I'm not good at...other people.

Brad's voice is scratchy and there's a little slur in his words. Nate remembers it from the endless days of no sleep.

You - I know that I was an asshole for letting you leave tonight. Because I do want that. More than just one night or one weekend. It's not gonna be easy and but I can't...I'm tired of not having anything to come back to. I love my job, but someday, it's not gonna be enough. And I'd be a fucking coward if I didn't at least try. And I want to, with you. If I haven't fucked everything up beyond repair.

There's a little hitch in Brad's breathing before the message cuts off. Nate's knuckles are white from how hard he's been gripping his phone and he has to listen to the message a second time, just to make sure.

*

Nate's almost through the paper when the front door opens. He looks up expectantly when Brad appears in the kitchen, his hair still damp from the ocean.

"You need better locks," Nate says. "I made coffee and there's bagels on the counter."

"Fuck that," Brad says, his hand shooting out to grab Nate's wrist before he can pick his cup back up. He's gripping so hard Nate can feel the bones grinding together. There's a beat of complete silence before Brad says, "All I could think was thank God it wasn't you. There was so much fucking blood everywhere and in the back of my head I was reciting every fucking prayer I could remember because if you'd been there, you would have done the same thing for your men and Jesus, I would have had to throw myself right out there on your six." He buries his face in Nate's neck. "What the fuck am I supposed to do about that, huh?"

Carefully, he wraps his arms around Brad's back. It takes about thirty seconds before he feels their breath sync up and Nate nudges Brad's face up so he can force him to look him in the eye. "I think it means that you're human. Pretty fucking scary, isn't it?"

Brad laughs weakly. "Yeah, it is." He gives Nate a serious look. "I'm going to fuck this up at some point. You get that, right?"

He touches Brad's jaw, catching on the five o'clock shadow that's growing in. "I don't think that's true at all. You cut yourself off because you assume other people don't understand you or the choices you've made. I know why you're doing what you do. I'm not them. And if you can't trust in that, then I don't know what else there is to say."

Nate curls a hand around the back of Brad's neck and kisses him gently. It takes a minute for Brad to kiss him back, but it's soft and tentative, like Brad's not sure he's doing this right. The knot in Nate's chest uncoils and he surges forward, pushing Brad into the wall and nipping hard at his mouth until Brad growls and shakes off his insecurity. They don't stop kissing until Nate's lungs are burning.

Brad's mouth is swollen and Nate swipes his thumb across Brad's bottom lip. "And just so we're perfectly clear, it's extremely unlikely I'm ever going to leave you for Ray, no matter how times he insists his dick is made of magic."

Brad goes stone faced and a lesser man might be afraid he'd gone too far. Luckily, Nate can read him like a book - there's a gleam in his eye. "I'm going to have to insist you never bring up Ray while we're..." He makes a vague gesture between them and Nate laughs. "I love Ray, but not that way. He could ruin a combat jack like no other Marine in the universe."

Nate takes another step in and angles Brad's mouth closer. "You have my word." He kisses the corner of his mouth and under his thumb, Brad's pulse is racing. "Let's try this again. Bedroom?" Brad nods and it's Nate walking backwards down the hall this time, trusting Brad to lead him.

With the curtains closed, the room is dim but Nate can see the way Brad's hands are shaking as he helps Nate strip off his shirt. Brad crumples it in his fist, looking at Nate like he's trying to memorize him. "I thought you were a man of action, Brad. Are you just going to stand there staring all day?"

"No, sir," Brad snaps, tossing Nate's shirt aside. "Just assessing the unfamiliar landscape." He reaches out, runs his fingertips over the dip of Nate's collarbone. Nate wants to squirm under his close scrutiny, but he holds still and waits for Brad's hand to stop at the waist of his jeans.

"This clear things up for you?" Nate asks, reaching down to unbutton them, taking half a step back before shoving them off.

Brad smirks. "Going commando, Nate? You must have been pretty confident." He pulls his t-shirt off and kicks his board shorts off. Nate's eyes go to that pinkish, healing scar and as much as he wants to take a full inventory of every inch of Brad, there'll be time to do that later. He reaches out and yanks Brad toward him, tumbling them both back onto Brad's rumpled bed.

"I was assured that any advances would be welcomed and encouraged. I took a calculated risk." He arches up, trying to line their hips up enough to get some friction. Brad gasps and Nate mouths at his neck. His skin tastes salty and warm. It's better than anything Nate's been imagining.

He cups Brad's cheek and kisses him, licking at his mouth until Brad is moaning and rutting against his hip. "How do you want to do this?" Brad asks and there's a soft little tremble in his voice that socks Nate right in the chest.

"On your belly," Nate says, "if that's good with you."

There's a split second where he sees Brad make his decision, shifting off of him and getting himself settled.

"Lube and condoms are in the drawer there," he tells him and Nate nods, leaving a kiss on his shoulder before he leans over to get them. Brad curls his arm under and pillows his cheek on it. He's giving Nate that same trusting look he gave him in Iraq, lying on his stomach in the dirt.

"We've come a long way, haven't we?" Nate says with a chuckle, running his hand over the riot of color splashed over Brad's lower back before settling between his legs.

Brad snorts. "That's a fucking understatement." His breath catches when Nate's slick fingers ghost over his hole with a tiny bit of pressure. His shoulders tighten and Nate smiles as he leans up to mouth at his spine, pushing the first one in just a little bit.

"I have you, Brad," he whispers. He can feel Brad taking in a deep breath and holding in for a minute before exhaling. When he does, his entire body seems to relax.

"Yeah, I know," Brad answers and Nate's able to keep going, pressing in all way. Brad is so tight and Nate's sure he's never done this before. It's a responsibility that Nate doesn't take lightly and he determined to make Brad fall apart as thoroughly as he possibly can.

He squeezes Brad's hip, pulling his finger out slowly. "Roll over," he says, scooting back to the edge of the bed.

Brad lets out an annoyed little huff, but Nate sees he's smiling. "Fucking officers. Do this, no, wait, do it this way instead. Make up your fucking mind." He stretches, hands curling around the slats in the headboard and Nate takes a moment to appreciate the sight in front of him - the long line of Brad's torso, the sharp, distinct cut of the muscles across his hips, his hard cock curving up toward his stomach. "What?" Brad asks.

Nate grins, crawling over him and kissing him. "Just noting that the reality is actually much better than what I've been picturing in my head all this time."

That makes Brad laugh. "Oh yeah? Been thinking about me while you've been tucked up all nice and neat in your mommy's house, jerking off and biting your lip so no one hears you?"

Nate scrapes his teeth over Brad's nipple as he moves back down the bed. Brad yelps and Nate smothers his own laugh against the skin just below his belly button. "Yeah, but I do most of my jacking off in the shower these days. Not likely anyone's going to interrupt me there." Grabbing the lube, he coats his fingers and shoulders Brad's thighs apart. He eases the first one in and moves it in and out, letting Brad get used to it. With his free hand, he strokes Brad's cock slowly. "You expect me to believe you weren't thinking about me too?" He leans forward, licking the tip of Brad's cock, tonguing the slit.

Brad groans and rolls his hips down. "Of course I fucking was. Thought about you sucking me off, your pink mouth stretched around my dick. How wet and messy it'd be, but fuck, how good it would feel." He lets his legs fall open even wider and Nate slides his mouth down, hollowing out his cheeks as he comes back up. It's been a long time since he's done this but he forgot how much he actually likes it - the feel of Brad's cock against his tongue, the dull ache in his jaw. And Brad's distracted enough that he's able to add a second finger, opening him up.

"Distraction - fucking hell, Nate - technique. ‘S good one," Brad stutters out and Nate hums his agreement. His own hard-on is aching and Nate's glad he can't touch himself because he's not sure he'd last very long at the rate he's going. Brad touches his cheek, thumb rubbing the corner of Nate's mouth. Nate looks up, catching his eye and Brad sucks his lower lip between his teeth and grunts. Crooking his fingers up, it takes Nate a few tries but when he hits that little bump inside Brad, Brad's hips shoot up off the bed. Nate sputters, but he doesn't pull all the way off until Brad tugs at his hair.

"Nate, you've gotta stop now or I'm not gonna make it," he says roughly. "Next time, okay, please."

Nate pulls off, but leaves his fingers where they are. "You think you're okay or you want one more?" he asks, scissoring them open and feeling something hot pulse through him when Brad whimpers.

He nods. "I'm good. I'm good."

"All right," Nate says, drawing them out slowly. He tears open a condom and rolls it on. Brad's eyes are half closed, but Nate knows he's watching his every move. Getting to his knees, he slicks his cock, exaggerating his movements. The friction of his own hand and the hooded, lazy look on Brad's face is almost too much for his dick to handle and Nate has to take a long, deep breath and get himself under control.

"Now that is going to be an excellent addition to my combat jack material," Brad says, palming his own cock. "Jesus fucking Christ, Nate."

Nate spreads a little more lube over Brad's opening before he lines himself up. Dropping down so he's got one hand next to Brad's head, Nate catches him mouth in a searing, messy kiss. "You ready?" he asks softly.

"As I'll ever be," Brad replies and that softness is back in his face. On his exhale Nate moves, using all his reserve to keep up a steady, even pressure instead of slamming in the way his body is screaming at him to. When he finally bottoms out, Brad inhales and his body tightens up even more around Nate's cock. He feels Brad's hand on his face.

"Don't pass out on me now," he teases and Nate turns to nip at his fingers, sucking Brad's thumb into his mouth. His hips flex, pulling halfway out before he shoves back in, a little less gently this time. The tight heat of Brad's body and flush in his cheeks are making Nate lose his control. Brad grunts and his hips start to move against Nate's, setting a hard, fast pace. Nate lets Brad's thumb slip out of mouth to bury his face in Brad's neck, mouthing and sucking at the place where it meets his shoulder.

Their bodies are moving together like they were made for this and Nate knows neither of them are going to last very long. He starts to shove a hand in between them, reaching for Brad's cock. But Brad's a step ahead of him and Nate feels the back of Brad's hand grazing his belly.

"Fuck, yeah," he says, pressing his cheek into Brad's. "Want you to come for me, please, Brad, God." It's like he has no control of himself and for once, Nate doesn't care. His vision has narrowed to this moment, sinking himself inside Brad's heat, the way Brad's blunt nails are digging into his tricep, and the dirty sweet little noises that are spilling from Brad's mouth.

Suddenly, Brad growls and his body goes still and taut for a split second. Then he comes and Nate can feel the sticky dampness smearing across his stomach. His eyes are closed, but Nate wants to see him.

"Look at me," he whispers, kissing the side of Brad's mouth. Brad blinks slowly and gives Nate a hazy, blissed out smile that Nate wants to burn into his brain and never forget. It's too much and Nate has to bite back the words that are suddenly at the tip of his tongue. He kisses Brad instead, only needing to thrust into him a handful of times before he comes too, his forehead pressed to Brad's.

*

He shivers and rolls over. The curtains have been thrown open, but Nate's alone in the tangled sheets. When he reaches out, the sheets are still warm. Brad hasn't been gone for long then. His whole body aches, but it was completely worth it.

"Hey."

Nate squints at the door as Brad comes back. He's got a bottle of water that he hands over as he slides back under the comforter. Nate takes it gratefully and drinks down half of it before leaving it perched on the nightstand. Brad looks strangely serious.

"What?" Dread washes over Nate and he sits up, dragging the covers up over his lap. "Better to just spit it out."

Brad looks out the window and licks his lips. "That was the Sergeant Major. Before we got sent back to Iraq, I put in to go on an exchange with the Royal Marines in the UK. He called to tell me they accepted my application. I leave for East Devon in three weeks."

"Is that all?" Nate's so relieved he almost starts laughing hysterically. "You scared the fuck out of me."

Brad's face is so priceless, he wishes he had a camera. "Have you lost your fucking mind? I knew I was good in bed, but not that good."

Nate shakes his head and hooks his hand around the back of Brad's neck. They're close enough to share breath when Nate says, "I got accepted to Harvard. I'm moving to Boston at the end of the month."

It's Brad's turn to look incredulous. "You didn't think to mention this before now? You turned in your M-16 just to matriculate to one of the bastions of liberal, cocksucking, Merlot-swilling trust fund babies? Fuck." Nate's about to say something back, but Brad kisses him softly. "Congratulations, Nate. I knew you were always the smartest of all of us."

Nate lets Brad pull at him until he's half sprawled across Brad's lap. But they haven't stopped kissing and Nate's mouth feels raw from it. "It's a shorter flight from England to Boston anyway. I guess it's a good thing I didn't say yes to Stanford though," he teases.

Brad rolls his eyes. "Christ, next you're gonna tell me you're growing your hair long and giving up meat or something, aren't you?"

Laughing, Nate squirms until they're both laying down again. He curls their fingers together and looks at Brad carefully. "You're still in this with me, right? I knew we weren't going to be living together or anything, but I should've mentioned Boston before this."

Brad squeezes his hand and moves, closing the distance between them. "I didn't mention the RM, so I think we're pretty much square. It's a two year exchange and after that, I don't know."

"Me neither. And we're obviously not going to figure it all out today. But I want you for as long as you'll have me. It's stupid to pretend otherwise anymore." Nate tangles their legs together and Brad sighs.

"Do you ever get tired of being right?"

"Not usually, but I'm sure there'll be a first time for everything," Nate answers, leaning across the pillow to kiss Brad again in the fading afternoon light.