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Brad's pissed when he says "I think we can take it from here, sir."

There's an alternate route. Of fucking course he's pissed.

The feeling's only intensified by the fact that he's pissed because he's pissed, and that's the kind of backwards-ass logic that makes him think prolonged exposure to Ray's semi-coherent, Ripped Fuel-induced rants has finally melted his brain.

Logically, there's no reason for him to be as angry at the LT as he is.

He knows the unspoken codes of conduct that prevent officers from ever admitting when they've fucked up, that the ‘burning dog’ speech is the closest Nate can get to an apology.

He knows the goatfuck orders to drive straight into a probable ambush without enough time for a foot patrol came from Command, and he knows Nate well enough that those orders made as much sense to him as they did to the rest of Bravo 2.

He knows that Nate's been forced to toe the line ever since Encino Man nearly killed them all in a blue-on-blue artie drop, that Casey Kasem's got a fucking vendetta and Schwetje's such an unevolved specimen he'll believe any invidious bullshit his minion starts spewing.

Brad knows all of these things, goddamnit. But he still feels betrayed.

From the moment they were given piece of shit Humvees and told to drive across the country in them, Brad had known that nothing in this war would be sacred. The ever-changing ROE, the scuttled missions, the dipshits supposedly in command who spent more time yelling dire proclamations or wiping civilian settlements off the face of the earth than they did issuing actual orders. And yet, he'd still looked his Lieutenant in the eye and told him that his leadership was the only thing he had absolute confidence in.

So maybe it's himself Brad's angry at, because he should have known better.

When Brad was first introduced to Bravo 2's new platoon leader, he'd assumed the lieutenant was as green as those big, expressive eyes of his.

Given the idiocy of the rest of First Recon's command structure, Brad had never been more glad to be proved wrong. Lieutenant Nate Fick was competent, he listened to his Gunny and his Team Leaders, and he could usually be relied on to commiserate about the sheer incompetence of Command. Or at least, Brad would throw out a few choice insults about the sheer incompetence of Command, and Nate would give him that look that was meant to be reproachful but actually just seemed relieved that someone was saying the things he couldn't.

Though more and more lately, Nate had just walked away instead, furious with the clusterfuck their campaign was rapidly becoming and not trusting himself to speak. Brad wants to be there when that righteous anger finally boils over, but he knows Nate keeps it tamped down around his men, and around his superiors. His eyes give everything away, though, faith in the Corps slowly ground to dust by the weight of all the shit rolling downhill. Brad keeps giving Nate openings to talk about it - because Brad wants the opportunity to bitch to the one officer who actually gets it, yes, but also because he thinks Nate needs that outlet. Nate's never taken him up on it, though; always the commensurate professional, even when he's being strangled by the chains of command.

Still, Brad had come to expect at least some recognition that the orders coming down from on high were so much dangerous bullshit. But the night of the ambush, Nate had shut that down and acted like he was actually on board with Battalion's latest asinine plan.

The words were hollow, they all knew it. It didn't change the fact that Nate had cut off their objections and said, "Frankly, gentlemen, I'm not hearing the aggressiveness I'd like."

That had stung more than anything. It stays with Brad when the action itself has been compressed into a frantic blur of noise and motion in his memory. It's the source of the prickling anger that surfaces when he pitches a shit-fit about the MRE situation the next day. And it's the reson why he looks Nate right in the eyes and says "That's very astute, sir," in the most scathing voice he can get away with.

While they're Oscar Mike, he concentrates on watching his sector and leaves those thoughts to run in the background. It wouldn't do to get distracted by his fucking emotions like some prom princess who has to write down her feelings in a pink fluffy diary. Brad's an effective soldier; he knows how to compartmentalise. But Nate...Nate has him compromised without even trying.

Brad doesn't know when, exactly, it started - when professional respect turned into an instinctive, bone-deep trust; when Lieutenant Fick became Nate, at least in his head. But sometime between their arrival at Camp Mathilda and stepping off for the invasion, Brad recognised that Nate was the only thing standing between his platoon and their higher-ups' stupidity. The sheer conviction that takes had been immediately striking, and in the privacy of his own thoughts, Brad can admit that he's blown straight past observing and into admiration.

As a general rule, Brad expects people to disappoint him. He's with Recon because it allows him to be the best there is at what he does - and he's worked with some damn fine Marines, but even BRC can't weed out all the idiots. When Nate kept surpassing those expectations, he should've figured it was only a matter of time before the other shoe dropped.

And now he's feeling fucking betrayed, because - what, because he expected the LT to take the fall for them? To martyr himself - and pointlessly at that, since all it would accomplish is Nate getting court-martialled and the platoon having no one left to protect them from the rest of Chaos and Godfather and Hitman's idiocy. And all because, without his consent, Brad's subconscious has decided to cast Nate in the role of his own person lord and savior, rather than a fallible fucking human being.

It would sure as hell explain why he's feeling this so deeply: Brad's taking it personally. It's not supposed to be fucking personal.

He's already starting to regret his earlier actions, so when Nate comes back saying their request for a prisoner snatch has been denied, Brad tacks a "thanks for trying" onto his response, hoping Nate will hear it for the apology it is.

Later, he tries again, with Nate expressing doubts about his plan to use smoke grenades at the roadblock. Brad wants to push it, sure they'll be saving lives in the long run, but he's not going to undermine his LT's authority.

"You do have power over this," he says, an acknowledgement that so many decisions are out of Nate's hands, but Brad is offering him something he can control.

Not that it matters, in the end.

That night, they're dug in somewhere outside of Al Kut, horizon sporadically lit by flashes of artillery fire.

Kocher comes back from patrol muttering dark imprecations about Captain America, whose latest display of dumbfuckery seems to be the attempted bayonetting of an EPW. Brad mentally reshuffles McGraw to the top of his 'Most Likely To Get Killed In A Friendly-Fire Incident' list, then leaves Ray to his watch.

It's pretty clear to Brad that he won't be getting much sleep, not with the spectre of the car, doors hanging open and bullets in the windshield, casting a shadow over the whole team. He goes to make the rounds instead - Poke's actually sleeping for once, rather than monologuing to Reporter; Rudy's putting up a good front, but he still seems a little lost with Pappy gone.

As he approaches the command truck, Mike leans out the window.

"Brad? LT's lookin' for you."

"Roger that."

What the hell Nate wants is a mystery to Brad. He's already put out on comms that they're holding position while RCT-1 rolls ahead of them, and he'd come by earlier to talk Walt through writing up an AAR on the shooting.

There's always a possibility that it's about that morning, the look Nate gave him that said we're not doing this here. Brad doesn't really want to consider that possibility.

He finds Nate on the far side of a berm, looking out at the city burning in the distance.

"You should be getting some sack-time, Brad," he says, as Brad stops at his shoulder.

"Pot calling the kettle sleep-deprived, sir. You wanted to see me?"

Nate slants him a look, puzzled. "No, I..." he purses his lips as a look of realisation crosses his face. "Did Mike tell you that?"

A set-up, then. Gunny Wynn's a sneaky motherfucker.

"Yes, sir," Brad replies, "Want me to go back and tell him to stop meddling in your affairs?"

Nate sighs. "That won't be necessary." He glances at Brad, asks "Anything to report?" almost hopefully, as if looking for a distraction from whatever's keeping him up and wandering the camp's perimeter in the middle of the night.

Brad only wishes he had better news.

"I feel I should inform you before you hear the sanitised version: Bravo Three's illustrious commander just tried to bayonet a disarmed Iraqi captive. Might've succeeded, too, if he hadn't hit him in a spare mag."

Brad almost regrets telling him - Nate's face goes blank, a poor attempt to hide his dismay at yet more evidence of his fellow officer's insanity. But information is everything in their current circumstances, and Nate deserves to have accurate intel.

"What do you want me to do, Brad?" Nate says, his voice carefully neutral.

That is the question, isn't it. What he wants is for Nate to back them up so they can get Captain America out of a position of authority, and preferably into the padded cell he so richly deserves. Command won't pay the slightest bit of attention to the enlisted guys if they try to sound the alarm, but maybe they'll listen to one of their own. Except Nate wasn't there, he didn't see anything, and while he can attest to the general truth of McGraw's raving lunacy, the other officers have made it pretty fucking clear that they don't want to hear anything Nate has to say.

It's so, so tempting to press the issue anyway, pour out all the rage and frustration about this, about the whole godforsaken invasion - and maybe Nate would even let him, here in the privacy afforded by their distance from camp and the quiet of night; but the fact is, he'd only be telling Nate what he already knows.

"I don't think there's anything you can do, sir," Brad answers instead, letting some of the weariness he feels seep into his tone. "Just...keep being a leader we can trust."

"I don't know if I am that anymore," Nate says, raw and honest, and Brad looks at him sharply, because what the fuck is that supposed to mean?

Nate's tongue darts out to wet his lips, a habit Brad usually tries his best not to notice. It's clear he's working up to something.

"The bridge, at Muwaffaqiyah."

So, they are doing this. Brad had been so ready to have it out that morning that he and Nate had stared each other down in front of the other TLs. Now that he's no longer spoiling for a fight, he doesn't know how to have this conversation. They've always worked best when they didn't have to talk to understand each other.

"It's in the past, sir."

Nate scoffs, self-deprecating. "Not for Pappy. Or Stafford. We're just lucky it wasn't worse."

He sounds haunted - by the bullet hole in 2-2's windshield where Rudy's head would have been just seconds before, the RPG that went right past the back of Brad's own vehicle. Brad remembers when he heard "Don't shoot, LT's foot mobile!" cut through the radio chaos. Nate's right. They were lucky.

"Sir, it wasn't worse because you got us out. And ordinarily I might question the wisdom of leaving your victor to direct traffic in a hail of gunfire, but it worked: you unfucked the situation."

"It's not much of a consolation when I'm the one who fucked it in the first place." Nate steels himself and meets Brad's gaze head-on. "I shouldn't have denied you that foot patrol, timetable be damned."

Brad raises an eyebrow. "An officer admitting they're not infallible? Never thought I'd see the day." He knows he's pushing it. He doesn't care.

A spark of anger flares in Nate's eyes. "Brad -" this is serious, he doesn't say, because Brad steamrolls over him.

"You don't need to explain, sir. If you hadn't followed your orders to the letter it could've gotten you shitcanned, and I think I speak for the whole platoon when I say we'd rather have you."

He stares at Nate, willing him to understand that he means every word of it. For a moment, Nate's expression is wide open, almost vulnerable, searching Brad's face for the truth of his statement.

Then he huffs, shaking his head. "I'm not the one who should be giving reassurances here." Brad looks askance at him. "This morning," he clarifies, "You were angry."

And fuck, they are really not doing this. Brad didn't spend a whole afternoon unravelling the Gordian Knot of conflict in his head just for Nate to start talking about feelings.

"I'm all squared away, sir," Brad says tightly, "It won't impact my combat effectiveness." Which, he realises now, is not exactly denying those feelings.

"If this is because of how I handled -" Nate starts.

"It's not about that, sir." Well, it is, but it's about a lot of things: Nate going all moto and pretending like he didn't have the exact same concerns about the mission as his TLs, the clusterfuck of Battalion politics that backed Nate into a corner in the first place, the fact that they all nearly died because Command keeps sending them into fucking ambushes...

He's not going to voice that, though. He knows Nate feels similarly about a lot of this, but he also knows Nate still thinks it's his duty to slap that shit down at the first sign of dissension.

Brad settles for something he can live with, instead. "The situation got so far out of our control."

"I know," Nate sighs, "But this is a war. We can't expect all our engagements to be predictable."

Bullshit. They would have known exactly what they were getting into if they'd just been able to do that fucking foot patrol. Nate's closing back in on himself, resorting to meaningless platitudes - Brad needs to impress upon him exactly how much of a clusterfuck they just barely avoided, and fast.

"Sir, you got out of your vehicle. It's a miracle worthy of your pansy-ass Christian god you weren't hit."

Nate shakes his head, suddenly vehement. "I can't lose any of my men because I didn't take action when I could have."

"And I understand that, sir...but we can't lose you either."

Nate looks away, mouth pressed into a thin line, like he doesn't want to believe it. Brad can't have that.

"Nate." It's out there before he even realises it. Nate's eyes snap back to his immediately - it's the first time Brad's ever called him that out loud. He can't take it back now. The moment feels precarious, like standing in the door of an airplane, waiting for the green light to jump.

Brad once climbed Mount Shasta on a broken ankle. He's not afraid of heights.

He takes the leap.

"I can't lose you," he says, and Nate exhales a shaky breath, and then they're kissing.

It's - awkward, at first, the brims of their Kevlar jammed up against each other until Nate leverages the difference in their height and angles his head just right, and then it's perfect.

Brad gets a hand on Nate's cheek, thumb stroking over his jaw where soft skin meets the rough edge of his chinstrap. Nate's long fingers clutch restlessly at Brad's shoulder before sliding down his arm as he licks into the heat of Nate's mouth, and the layers of MOPP suit between them don't seem to matter, because Brad can feel everything.

"We shouldn't be doing this," Nate mutters against Brad's lips.

Brad hums an agreement. Neither of them stop.

When they finally break apart, it's only to lean their helmets together, breathing each other's air. Nate looks a little awed, pupils blown, irises reduced to thin rings of green that shine silver in the moonlight. Dirt-streaked and weary, he's incredibly beautiful.

Brad almost lost this, lost Nate, trying to save them from a situation that he himself ordered them into.

"If you get yourself killed out here," Brad says, almost surprised at his own fierceness, "I swear to the god I don't believe in that I'll storm the gates of Heaven in my shitty Humvee and drag you back out myself."

Nate holds his gaze solemnly, long enough to let Brad know that he's read and understood the seriousness there. Then a flicker of humour crinkles the corners of his eyes. "What makes you think I'm going to Heaven, Brad?" he asks teasingly.

Brad feigns mock-surprise. "Good little Catholic boy like you?"

"I'm agnostic, actually."

"That's just atheism for pussies, sir."

Nate huffs and then ducks in to kiss him again, chaste and surprisingly sweet. When he pulls back, he says, in his best Lieutenant voice, "Be advised, Sergeant, that from now on, I'll try to stay clear of burning dogs."

"I am assured of this."

Brad earns a real grin out of that. Even in the dark, Nate's smile is absolutely devastating - if they could just get it on posters, Brad thinks, they'd score a major propaganda coup. He hoards the few instances he'd managed to provoke one from Nate like the Chef Boyardee and pristine issues of Juggs he keeps hidden in his pack, as rare and precious as LSA or working batteries in this godforsaken desert hellhole.

Their only point of contact now is Nate's hand on Brad's wrist, burning like a brand against the cold desert night. They both seem to realise at the same time, looking down to where they're touching. It crosses Brad's mind that this is some serious fifth grade, paper valentines, do-you-like-me-check-yes-or-no bullshit, and he can't even bring himself to care.

"Do we need to talk about this?" Nate asks, running a thumb along the edge of Brad's sleeve.

Brad just looks at him, and lets it mean everything: I know the risks and I'm prepared to deal with them and we're both professionals who won't allow this to jeopardise our mission and a little incredulity at the question, because they're two people who can already communicate so much without saying a single word. He trusts Nate to read it all.

Nate dips his head, smiling a little. "Stupid question," he concedes. "Even so."

Of course Nate would be worried that he's forced Brad into something, when Brad wants nothing more than to get a hand down Nate's pants and swallow the sounds he makes. But if he needs Brad to say it, then he will.

"Listen - I will follow your orders anywhere else. But this? You could never make me do anything I didn't want to."

Nate blows out a long breath, relieved, as he nods in acquiescence. "Alright, then."

Though he doesn't seem in any hurry to let go of Brad's wrist, Brad can tell the moment is fading. Soon they'll have to face the reality of the war again - but he can't begrudge Nate this last moment of calm, not for anything.

Finally, Nate draws his hand away, trailing fingers across Brad's palm before stepping out of his personal space. Their separation brings with it a near-tangible change in pressure, like resurfacing from a dive. The situational awareness he'd pushed to the back of his mind re-prioritises, sense-data flooding back in: the distant thunder of explosions, the mundane noise of three hundred Marines going about their business. Brad has to take a deep breath to steady himself against the weight of it; sees Nate doing the same, almost gratified that it's affecting him just as acutely.

"Now will you get some sleep?" It's the LT talking, not Nate, but it's still more of a suggestion than an order.

Brad inclines his head. "I will if you will, sir."

"It's a deal." When Nate meets his eyes again, it's behind the impersonal distance of a platoon commander - though his voice is soft when he says, "Goodnight, Brad."


Nate smiles a shy, private smile, and that's the last Brad sees before they both turn away, headed back to camp in opposite directions.

Brad makes his way back to 2-1 Alpha. Walt's not on watch, but he's awake anyway. Ray's keeping him company with a stream of incessant chatter, presumably tweaking on some heinous mixture of dip, Ripped Fuel, and instant coffee granules. He peers over the roof of the Humvee and raises his eyebrows enquiringly.

"Does this mean you and Mom kissed and made up?"

"I don't know what your stimulant-addled brain thinks it's referring to, Person, but it concerns me greatly that you think a whiskey tango freak of genetics such as yourself could possibly be considered one of my offspring," Brad deflects, wondering when he got so easy to read.

Ray snorts. "As if, homes. Everyone knows I'm the cool uncle."

Brad chooses not to dignify that with a response. If anything, Ray's more of a weird, foul-mouthed cousin, but if Brad's referring to him in terms of family members at all, then he's already lost.

Instead, Brad follows his lieutenant's orders: he beds down in his grave, and sinks into sleep.

For once, he doesn't dream of Iraq.