Fandom: Generation Kill
Characters/Pairings: Nate/Brad (mentions of Brad/OFCs and Ray/Walt)
Summary: Groundhog Day AU. Brad Colbert wakes up and it's the same day over and over again.
Disclaimer: Based on fictionalised portrayals as seen on the HBO miniseries.
A/N: Written for the prompt 'Alternate History: Personal life of a character changed' for au_bingo, but also a Groundhog Day AU. Changes made to the canon concern the timeline of Brad's break-up with his fiance.
As always, thanks to kubis for hand-holding and ass-kicking.
In hindsight, it’s funny.
Not laugh-out-loud hilarious, belly laugh funny, and not the warm and comfortable chuckle you look back at with fondness. It’s four in the morning, look at it through the bottom of a whisky glass and marvel at the general fucked-up-ness funny. It’s laughter tinged with bitterness, your stomach turning inside out, shake your head and then bang it over the nearest flat surface ridiculous.
“I didn’t want to tell you over the phone, or in a letter,” Audrey says, wringing her hands nervously, not looking at him at all. “Seems like something to do face to face,” she adds.
She’s still not looking at him. It’s priceless.
Her sundress is slightly billowed in the front, over her round belly. She looks radiant and beautiful and all that cliche fuckery people would tell you expecting mothers should look like. Finn’s looking at her like she’s the best thing since sliced bread, and he’s looking at Brad like he’s expecting a punch any moment now.
And the thing is, Brad would have been even more pissed off if it happened over the phone, or in a letter. He would have been livid, boiling inside for days, his skin heated up from inside and additionally baked in the harsh desert sun, and yet still staying frosty.
Told you this shit was hilarious.
He doesn’t blame Audrey (he left her first). He doesn’t blame Finn (who in their right fucking mind wouldn’t fall for Audrey?). He blames his sisters a little, because for all the gossip they included in their letters this should have been the thing to mention first and foremost, but he understands why they could think he had already known.
There’s no one else to blame and that’s mildly irritating. It’s like a fucking itch you can’t reach, like a constant chatter in the back of his mind. And he knows chatter, he went through miles and miles of fucking desert country with Ray Person.
Riding his bike helps a little, but less than he’d like it to. The engagement ring Audrey handed him, her hand shaking and cold, burns a hole in his pocket. He ponders the satisfaction throwing it in the ocean could bring, but in the end he doesn’t. He’s anything if not practical.
Ray finds out, somehow, either by his psychic link to the aliens from whatever whiskey tango planet he comes from, or one of Brad’s sisters calls him. Probably Kate, she’s been looking shifty for the whole week. Sue just keeps bringing her daughters over, as if being made to wear a plastic tiara and having endless tea parties with a GI Joe action figure, one-eyed teddy bear and a purple cuddly squid, would somehow cure all of his ills.
At least there’s no fucking Barbie dolls at the tea-parties, his nieces weren’t brainwashed by the industry that thinks everything in the world is better when painted pussy pink.
Ray finds out and flies over, drags Brad to a strip club after strip club, until Brad is pretty sure he can’t even looks at breasts anymore. It’s oddly therapeutic.
“I know you might have pussy-issues, Brad,” Ray says one evening, or night, or early morning, Brad doesn’t really give a shit at that point, they’ve been sharing a joint and everything is a little bit blurry. “But there’s nothing better for that than fucking it out of your system. I can buy you a good whore, if you want.”
The cure to all ills as presented by Ray fucking Person, everyone. It’s a bit more reasonable than Sue’s idea, and that’s terrifying.
“I appreciate the sentiment, but I dread to think what unknowable sexually transmitted diseases I could pick up from a prostitute you would have deemed appropriate for your budget.”
“Fine, be like that. You’re going to regret not taking me up on my very generous offer when your pal Ray-Ray is gone and you’re left crying into your pillow because you miss him so much.”
“You’re leaving? Say it ain’t so,” he deadpans. “Little Missus tightened her leash?”
“Told you not to call Walt that. He gets cranky when you call him that,” Ray shakes his head. “I’m applying to film school.”
Everyone’s moving on. Might be why Brad keeps on breaking the speed limits on his bike, it’s easier to drown out the whooshing sounds of everyone else’s.
On a too hot Thursday he gets Mike Wynn’s monthly newsletter. Poke’s wife is pregnant again. Ray got into the fucking film school. Cpt. Fick is writing a book. Everyone is writing fucking books these days. Brad stares at the e-mail for a long time and then grabs his keys, goes for a run. The air is sticky and awful, everyone else has given up and his usual route is devoid of joggers. It’s a good thing.
He stops at the grocery store to pick up fucking toilet paper and runs into Audrey, because that’s how it works, everything is shit. She looks awfully pregnant and even more awfully happy. It’s going to be a girl.
Brad’s not sure how he gets back home, he has no recollection of it whatsoever. He picked up the toilet paper, though, remembered the right brand and all. Dropped it in the hallway and headed for the kitchen, taking out a bottle of Gatorade from the fridge, drinking it all in one go. His cellphone buzzes on the counter, vibrates its little heart out, Fick’s name flashing on the screen. There was no news about Brad in Gunny’s newsletter and the LT could be a suspicious bastard when he needed to, he gave no quarter, got right under Brad’s skin.
He doesn’t pick up. There’s another call, but this time only three rings before Fick gives up. Doesn’t leave a message either. Brad can’t imagine it otherwise, there’s not much to say, really. Well, maybe there is some, but there shouldn’t be, so there you are.
He has no fucking idea why he books the ticket that evening. Maybe because in the long run it’ll be cheaper then the speeding tickets he gets and stores in the same drawer he keeps the engagement ring.
The plane’s delayed, because why the fuck not, and after Brad goes through the customs it’s definitely too late to be visiting his former commanding officer.
To be honest, no time is a good time to drop unannounced on his former commanding officer, having no real reason to be there except a gut feeling and an impulsive decision. Fick probably wouldn’t kick him out, but that’s only provided he’s actually home. Brad didn’t bother to check. Que sera, fucking sera.
Brad checks into a hotel near the airport that has decently sized beds but which otherwise must have been furnished by a colourblind person on crack and ripped fuel. The wallpaper alone could give anyone nightmares, but Brad is out like a light and sleeps dreamlessly, at least until he’s rudely awoken by the fucking La Bamba song from the alarm clock radio.
This hotel could actually be hell. Thankfully, he’s not staying here for more than a day.
He stops at a diner on the corner. It seems one step above the hotel, but that’s not difficult. The waitress, name tag proclaiming her to be Lindsay, smiles at him flirtatiously and makes a crack about sausage. She has a tattoo of a sea horse on her ankle and her nervous energy reminds Brad a little of Person, except she seems sane.
“Can I get you anything else? We have great pecan pie,” she says, eyelashes fluttering.
“No, thanks. I could use some coffee, though. Black, no sugar.”
She seems disappointed but nods and sashays away. Brad glances at his watch, trying to figure out how much time he has to catch Fick before his classes. He’s hacked the schedule, he’s not beyond that. Nate probably wouldn’t mind, it was good recon. It still doesn’t give him the perfect estimate, he doesn’t know if Fick leaves just on time or if he gives himself a few minutes to spare, if he stops for a coffee or breakfast on his way or has them at home. Too many variables. This mission prep motherfucking sucks.
He leaves Lindsay a tip and lingers just a moment, watching as she moves around the place, dodging people and balancing trays. The sea horse is mesmerising, just a little, but he’s on a good way to swearing off all the women who don’t name their price upfront.
Brad takes a cab to get to Fick’s place. It’s within walking distance, to be honest, but it’s a walking distance of a Recon Marine and it could take a few hours to get there, so the cab it is.
There’s a pile-up and a massive traffic jam on the route, of course, so he legs the last few clicks. The weather’s the worst kind, the heat wave not lessening, and it’s worse here, buildings blocking the breeze, amongst car fumes and noise. Brad’s shirt is far from the almost familiar discomfort of a MOPP suit, but it sticks to the small of his back and stains under his armpits.
There are wilting flowers on Fick’s fucking lawn, and a golden retriever relieving itself on the sidewalk. The girl holding the leash looks at Brad sheepishly and leans down to pick up the turd with a hard piece of paper and place it in a designated bag. Her blonde pig tails sway as she bends over, the dog using this moment to try and lick her face.
Brad feels seriously out of place, on this street, in this place. On Fick’s fucking lawn. He freezes, one foot on the step leading to the front door, hesitates. He shouldn’t have come.
The door opens, startling him. Nate blinks a few times, against the harsh sun or with confusion at what’s Brad doing here, Brad can’t really tell.
“Morning, Mr. Fick!” the girl with the dog yells and Fick smiles at her over Brad’s shoulder, nods politely. His eyes keep sliding back to Brad.
“Morning, Mel,” he says and she skips away, more lead by the dog than leading it, hurrying down the sidewalk. “Morning, Brad,” Fick adds in the same pleasant tone. He doesn’t sound surprised at all, he sounds as if his former NCOs arrived on his doorstep every day, without good reason or notice.
He sounds like he used to when they did see each other every day. Brad never thought he’d feel nostalgic for the clusterfuck, but wonders apparently never cease. “I should have called,” Brad says.
Nate shrugs. “Probably, but nevermind. It’s good to see you,” he says, earnest and smiling, and he reaches out, pulls Brad in for a heartfelt hug, patting him on the back. “Come on in.”
Brad follows him inside, hoists his duffel bag on his shoulder as Nate drops his keys into the bowl in the hall, kicks off his shoes. It’s not a big house, but it looks spacious, uncluttered. Only the bookshelves in the living room are different, books stacked up to the point of impossibility, some left in piles on the coffee table and on the kitchen counter. Textbooks on the couch, covered with post-its and cheerful blue sticky bookmarks, notes and files on the table, three pens on them, one uncapped.
It’s not quite a life that Brad belongs in. It’s a familiar feeling, almost like a deja vu, but he can’t quite explain it, Audrey and Nate are worlds apart. And yet he doesn’t fit in either of their new lives. He just shows up, like the ghost of the fucking Christmas Past.
“Are you in town for long?” Nate hands him a bottle of beer, cold and already sweating in Brad’s hand. Brad glances at the label; imported, expensive. There are jokes about Ivy League tastes to be made but the words don’t quite form on his tongue.
“Starting early, sir?” he asks instead, raising the bottle in question, punctuating it with a twitch of his eyebrow.
“It’s happy hour somewhere. Besides, if I’m going to skip classes for the day, I can just as well do it properly,” he mutters, sitting down on the end of the couch, his gaze clearly indicating he expects Brad to do the same.
“Wouldn’t want to interfere with your grade point average, sir,” Brad says, not moving.
“You--” Nate starts and hesitates, shakes his head. “You’re not,” he says, and Brad has a feeling he was going to say something else. “And lose the sir when you’re drinking my beer.”
“Yes, sir,” he says and sits down.
Nate looks more bemused than irritated at that, shaking his head again. He sits more comfortably, one foot propped up on the coffee table. His index finger slides up and down the neck of the bottle absently, his head tilted as he’s trying to puzzle out why Brad’s here.
Brad doesn’t volunteer information on that one and Nate seems to know better than to ask. Instead, they talk about the Wynns’ upcoming anniversary and whether Cara knows what she’s getting into by inviting almost everyone Mike has ever served with. Nate has just learned about Ray’s plans from the newsletter and is of the opinion that Person’s movies will definitely inspire a cult following.
“With our luck, he’ll hit it big in Cannes. They love the edgy pseudo-artiste goatfucking bullshit, Ray will fit right in,” Brad mutters.
Nate doesn’t touch his beer beyond the first customary toast. It stands forgotten on the coffee table, perspiration gathering under it, the wet circle wide enough to touch the nearby heap of papers. Brad recognises some of the words in the notes on the top sheet even upside down, even in Nate’s shorthand.
Nate says the book is just a vague idea. In Nate-speak it means he’s probably a good two hundred pages in and has already sold the concept to some publisher. He sounds nervous about it, his eyes flickering to Brad’s uncertainly.
“Reporter already did his worst,” Brad offers, shrugging. Some of the tension in Nate’s shoulders disappears. “But I’ve heard that he has toned down my greatness, I trust you’ll remedy that,” he adds, not certain why he wants to see Nate’s quick grin but strangely pleased when he gets it.
There’s nothing edible in Nate’s fridge, what little food there is turns out to be some organic crap. Nate tries to defend himself and say he was going to make a grocery run today after classes, but Brad doesn’t believe him. It would probably be some tofu shit anyway. Brad takes over the take-out menus Nate fishes out of the drawer and orders them a pizza. It’s hot when it’s delivered, but they mixed the order and instead of extra bacon, they got anchovies.
Brad doesn’t have the energy to argue, but he glares at the kid in the fugly hat who’s standing on Nate’s doorstep, ready to bolt.
Nate, on the other hand, just takes the box and tips the kid outrageously. “It’s really hot outside, and that hat and that shirt are probably not helping,” he tells Brad defensively. “And besides, I don’t give a fuck what’s on the pizza as long as it’s not M&Ms.” At Brad’s look, he shrugs. “One of my nieces loves her pizza with M&Ms. It tastes surprisingly good the first time you try it, but not the fifteenth.”
Brad didn’t even know Nate had nieces. He’s heard about sisters at some point, yes, but this image of Nate as a doting uncle who takes his nieces out for pizza is new, doesn’t quite fit with Lt. Nate Fick. Neither do the books on international policy, or the bright bookmarks. The notes in shorthand are familiar and Brad clings to that image, to the words he knows and has seen on maps and reports, but it’s probably more like Nate’s dealing with his past before he moves forward.
Everyone keeps fucking moving forward.
They eat the pizza in near silence. Nate seems to have picked on the change in the mood easily, apparently the ability to read Brad all too easily hadn’t disappeared. Brad’s not sure how he feels about that one.
“Why are you here?” Nate asks after a long while, after he licked the grease off his fingers and drunk half of the water straight from a bottle. The question isn’t pointed, isn’t angry; Nate’s tone is curious and just a little worried underneath, like looking after Brad’s well being is still a part of his job.
“I’ve been in the neighbourhood.” Nate’s mouth twist at that and Brad wants to kick himself but he doesn’t take it back and doesn’t elaborate. He wonders why he came here, if he’s not even going to tell Nate about Audrey and Dave.
Brad deals with his own shit. Always. It’s one of the tenets of being the Iceman, according to Ray. But at the heart of the biggest clusterfuck in the universe that was the OIF, it helped to look at the LT, to get a nod or a restrained smile, or just to see him struggling too. Maybe that’s why he’s here, to have the same sense of calm wash over him. But what worked in the desert, with the sound of artillery so familiar it was just a background noise, doesn’t seem to work now, not in the real world that Nate took to like a fish to water and Brad just doesn’t fit in.
Nate’s looking at him, his mouth working around words that don’t form. When his cellphone buzzes it takes him a moment to shift, to turn his gaze away from Brad. He picks it up reluctantly, glances at the caller ID, his brown smoothing out, the corner of his mouth curling up in a smile. Brad feels like he’s trespassing on something but he can’t quite make himself to look away.
“No, you’re not interrupting. I’m not in class,” Nate’s saying. His voice is soft, fond. “I remember. I’ll be there,” he adds, his eyes flickering to Brad, frowning slightly as if thinking something over.
Brad wipes his sweating hands against his pants, leans forward, off the couch, ready to stand up. Nate says his goodbyes, laughing at something he heard, head bowed. His runs his fingers through his hair, way past the grooming standard. “I’m keeping you from something.”
“My niece has a half-birthday party,” Nate says and smiles. It’s bright and brilliant and too much. “It’s a long story. Do you want...” he starts and Brad stands up, interrupting Nate mid-sentence.
“I should go. I’m probably already late,” he lies and Nate’s smile fades, only a ghost of it remaining, frozen and polite. He can tell Brad’s lying, he probably could even if Brad wasn’t making a half-assed job out of it.
“It’s been good to see you.”
It sounds final, like a goodbye. Brad was counting on just that, on Nate letting him get away with his dignity intact, but some part of him apparently wanted to be called on his bullshit. He swallows the disappointment and nods. “I’ll probably see you at Mike’s.”
He probably will, but it doesn’t change the fact that they’re done with something, something Brad wasn’t even sure was there.
Nate calls him a cab and keeps him company until it arrives, then shakes Brad’s hand perfunctorily, his expression perfectly pleasant and perfectly closed-off. When the car drives away, Brad doesn’t look back.
He goes straight to the airport, buys the first ticket back home, pays the exorbitant price that ensures him some decent leg room. He kills some time at the airport, thumbs through Wright’s book in the bookstore. Brad never bothered to read it in its entirety; Ray has made a medley of the greatest hits, mostly his own rants, and a list of what he maintains proves Wright went gay for Brad, and sent it to everyone who wanted and to pretty much everyone who didn’t want it too.
Wright took some really godawful fucking pictures for the book. Except maybe that one.
Brad leaves the book on the shelf. He’s half tempted to hide one of the copies inside a Hustler magazine, for old times’ sake, but the girl with a nametag that procclaims her to have really cruel parents who think it’s a good idea to name your kid after a fruit is already giving him weird looks.
When the plane takes off and something queasy sets in his stomach, he blames the anchovies. It’s barely late afternoon and he feels tired already, must be the jet-lag. he lets himself drift off.
He’s rudely awoken by the fucking La Bamba song from the alarm clock radio.
Brad goes from asleep to annoyed as all hell pretty damn quick. He had practice, having been woken up by lots of infuriating things, from mortar fire to Ray Person’s singing. The La Bamba song is worse than one of these.
He goes to hyperaware even faster, and that’s both down to experience and something being really, really wrong with where he is.
It feels real, even though the wallpaper still has a nightmarish quality. It feels real and confusing, because someone turned the plane around, he shouldn’t be here.
He checks his watch. It tries to convince him it’s yesterday.
So does the tv and so does the hotel’s receptionist. Could be a prank, Brad’s not putting it past some people he knows and is sometimes forced to tolerate. Could be mindfuck by enemy forces, except why would enemy forces drop him in the fucking hotel in Boston, he has no idea.
Oh, well. Retain freedom of maneuver. Orient on the threat.
He goes to the diner on the corner. Lindsay the Waitress smiles at him and makes a crack about sausage. She has the same uniform as yesterday, but that’s not proving much. Her shoes are the same, a strap over her ankle right under the seahorse.
“How’s your pecan pie?” Brad asks her.
“It’s great,” she smiles.
“So I’ve heard.”
He orders the pecan pie and when she brings the food, her smile is even brighter, hips swaying.
“It’ll sound like a line, but have we met?” Brad asks her and she cocks her hip, leans against the table.
“I would have remembered. You sure it’s not a line? I have a break in half an hour.”
“Maybe some other time.”
He leaves her a tip. There’s exactly the same amount of money in his wallet there’s been yesterday, before he paid for breakfast. He’s leaning towards the mindfuck theory, but it doesn’t add up.
Same taxi driver, same traffic jam. Pile-up on the route. The driver swears up a storm, but doesn’t remember anything like it yesterday. He wouldn’t, not if he’s in on whatever this is. Someone must have done to some serious trouble, it seems city-wide.
It seems fucking ridiculous.
He gets out of the car a little later, by the time he gets to Nate’s house, Nate is on the sidewalk, chatting with Mel, petting the dog who tries to lick his hand. He looks up when Brad approaches and smiles, earnest and pleasant, nodding. “Morning, Brad,” he says and Brad doesn’t know what the fuck.
Nate wouldn’t be in on it. He doesn’t seem surprised to see Brad, but there’s still a small hesitance, quick flicker of his eyes that means he didn’t expect it. When Brad doesn’t say anything, Nate just steps forward, draws Brad in for a brief hug, his hand patting Brad’s back. Three times, like yesterday.
Which could be today, and Brad’s losing his mind. Bound to happen, sooner or later.
“It’s good to see you,” Nate says. “Come on in.”
Brad goes. The house looks the same. The books, the pens, three of them on top of the notes, one uncapped. Same page on top.
“Are you in town for long?” Nate hands him a bottle of beer, cold and already sweating in Brad’s hand. Brad shakes his head.
“I’m not sure yet.”
Nate looks at him oddly, as if he’s trying to puzzle out Brad’s tone. He sits down on the couch and tilts his head, clearly indicating he means for Brad to do the same. Brad doesn’t argue this time, just sits down. The previous day plays out in his head. He doesn’t really feel like having the same fucking conversation.
“I’m having a really weird fucking day,” he says, leaning back on the couch, closing his eyes for a brief moment.
He feels the couch shift as Nate moves, turning to face Brad, one leg folded under the other, his arm extended on the back of the couch. His fingers rest two and a half inches from Brad’s shoulder. Brad isn’t sure why he has the need to catalogue the distance, but he does. The lines on Nate’s face shifted into gentle concern; he doesn’t ask, just waits expectantly.
Brad’s not sure how to explain it all without sounding like he’s having a PTSD episode. Fuck, maybe he is. That would be really fucking anti-climactic.
He lets out a breath, slowly. His voice is perfectly level when he speaks next. “So, the great news from the knitting circle is that our esteemed commander is writing a book. I have been tasked with ascertaining whether there’s some porn in there or if we shouldn’t bother at all.”
It startles a laugh out of Nate and he drops the concerned look, shakes his head in bemusement. “You have found me out, I’ve taken to purple prose. The only setback right now is that I can’t come up with a suitable pseudonym.”
“Everyone’s writing books now. Rudy has already signed on to write some zen crap, too. I blame Reporter, he infected everyone with this, worse than chlamydia.”
“I don’t think you have reasons to worry until Corporal Person decides to publish his tell-all memoir,” Nate says, a smirk hiding in the corner of his mouth. He loses it a moment later, his eyes widening when he realises this is a probable course of action.
“No, Ray’s at film school now. He’ll go with some mockumentary cringe comedy bullshit.”
“As long as it’s not porn,” Nate says philosophically, raising his beer in a toast. They circle back into the same conversation as yesterday. Poke’s kids, Mike’s anniversary, Walt’s career plans, Reporter’s fucking book. Brad varies his responses but some of Nate’s phrases echo in his memory.
Later, when Nate’s stomach rumbles low and Nate laughs about it, Brad doesn’t even bother to check the fridge. He takes over the take-out menus and pretends to read them, and when he calls the pizza place, he reminds them twice about the extra-bacon-no-anchovies. They fuck up the order anyway.
Nate laughs out loud at Brad’s disgruntled expression and tips the delivery boy outrageously. “I should have ordered you a pizza with M&Ms,” Brad tells him spitefully and Nate frowns in surprise. Well, fuck.
“Did I tell you about my niece?” Nate asks and Brad shrugs.
“Yeah. I’ve been actually tempted to tried that particular topping since then. Sounds like something Ray Person would concoct, you might want to look into people your niece hangs out with.”
“She’s eight,” Nate shakes his head. The slight suspicion melted away from his eyes, but Brad needs to be watching his words more closely. Nate’s always been a little too smart.
Brad tells him about Ray and Walt’s sandwich making experiments, a story that grows stranger with every retelling and he’s pretty sure it was already blown out of proportion when Ray told it the first time. Nate laughs hard, slaps his hand against his thigh, leaving greasy stains. He rubs at them twice, making it worse, and gives up, shrugging. Brad watches it with something akin to fondness.
He feels less adrift than yesterday, maybe the puzzle of the fucking deja vu is occupying that part of his brain that over-analysed everything. When Nate’s phone buzzes, right on cue, Brad only half-listens to the conversation.
“I’m keeping you from something,” he says after Nate disconnects.
“My niece has a half-birthday party,” Nate says and smiles. Brad waits, there was a question after this, and he wants to hear it this time. “It’s a long story. Do you want to tag along? You can try the M&Ms pizza.”
“Poorer incentive I’ve never heard,” he says flatly and Nate keeps smiling, his head tilted. “I don’t have a gift.”
Nate rolls his eyes. “You can sign the card. Unless I’m keeping you from something,” he asks after a moment of hesitant silence. They didn’t yet have that conversation, Nate hasn’t yet asked why Brad’s here, Brad reminds himself.
“I have all day,” he says lightly and doesn’t elaborate. “Yeah, okay. Crashing an eight-year-old half-birthday party seems like great fun.”
“I’m not hearing the sarcasm I’m accustomed to. Has life really been that boring lately?”
Brad shrugs and looks away. “Not boring. Not as such.” He doesn’t elaborate and Nate doesn’t ask, but Brad feels Nate’s concern like another layer of heat on his skin, rivaling the harsh sun. Nate’s good at not saying things, they must teach that fucking passive-aggressive bullshit sometime during the officers’ training.
“So, what’s the story behind the half-birthday?” he asks when they’re driving, windows down all the way because Nate seems to favour it over the air conditioning. Brad doesn’t really mind, the wind feels good.
“My sister and her husband had a fair share of disastrous birthdays between them. Three hospital visits, one fire, one emergency plane landing. They’re only celebrating half-birthdays now. The kids seem to think it’s the best idea ever, mostly because they have the party at half-birthdays and still get little gifts on their actual birthdays.”
“Sweet deal,” Brad agrees. Nate’s smile is small and fond and content when he speaks of his family, especially his nieces. Brad’s been expecting for a while now to read in Gunny’s newsletter that Nate has found himself a girl and is settling down, nice picket fence and all that, but it hasn’t happened yet.
Nate’s sister’s house reminds him a little bit of the one he was planning to buy for himself and Audrey, down to the big garage and the treehouse he thought would be a great idea one day. He shakes off that thought, along with some others, the ones that tell him it was a bad idea. Maybe, when have that ever stopped any Marine?
The back garden is overrun with kids. There’s a sprinkler on, and kids run through the streams of water giggling gleefully. Some of the adults seem to have thought it was a fantastic idea in this heat and they’re going under the stream under the pretense of minding the kids. The combined level of noise could rival some of the artillery strikes Brad has head, it’s just higher pitched.
“If you have a gift, leave it on the table inside,” a tall strawberry blonde says to Nate, leaning in to kiss him on the cheek. Her hair is still drying out and her sundress is streaked with water. “Hi, I’m Sarah,” she tells Brad.
“My sister,” Nate adds helpfully, as if the family resemblance wasn’t obvious. “Sarah, this is Brad.”
He doesn’t warrant an explanation, apparently. Not ‘one of my Marines’, not ‘my team leader from Iraq’, not even ‘someone I served with’. Sarah, however, seems fine with that and she nods as if ‘Brad’ explained everything. “Nice to meet you, Brad. Grab a plate, have a drink... we had something akin to a party plan half an hour ago, but it all got out of control when Charles turned on the water. I believe now it’s more of anything goes.”
“How much do you hate it?” Brad asks, because she has the same tight smile Nate gets when he doesn’t have all the information he needs, when he’s kept in the dark about something he should know. Except hers is definitely less broken.
“A lot,” she admits. “Don’t...” she starts when a kid runs through the water at high speed and doesn’t slow down until she runs into azaleas. “Nevermind,” Sarah shakes her head. “I’ll go get the cake ready and try not to think how my lawn will look tomorrow,” she says, something in her eyes belying the grimace, a small smile tugging at her lips. That too is familiar.
“Quite a party,” Brad says after she’s gone, watching the chaos for a moment.
“The proper family party is next week, when my other sister’s flying in. This is just the one for all the kids in Sandy’s class.”
“Half-birthdays are certainly a big deal in the Fick family,” Brad says, stepping aside when a small blur in flip flops and an over-sized Batman t-shirt hits against him on her way to Nate. Nate’s arms automatically go around her.
“Hey,” he says and the girl laughs, tugging him down to plant a wet kiss on his cheek. Her hair is braided and soaking wet and she has Nate’s eyes. Sarah’s eyes, if you want to be exact, probably.
“Hey, Uncle Nate. Dad put on the sprinkler,” she announces.
“Yes, I can see that. Hi, Beth,” Nate says to the other girl who came to stand with them, a taller and a more reserved one, who glances at Brad curiously whereas the Batman girl didn’t even seem to notice him as anything else but an obstacle on her trajectory. Beth looks twelve, maybe thirteen, if Brad’s any judge, and she’s coltish and a little awkward, mop of dark hair completely dry, unlike her sister’s. It’s streaked with blue and Nate smiles. “Nice hair. Finally convinced mom?”
“Clip-ons,” she shrugs. “Working on it,” she adds and lets herself be kissed on the forehead, the slightly shy grimace completely fake, judging from the way she leans into Nate, hugging him for a longer moment.
In the meantime, the younger girl turns to Brad, looking up, her head tilted. She tugs at his shirt and Brad obligingly crouches down, letting himself be investigated. He can see Nate’s smile, threatening to outshine the fucking sun. “You’re Brad, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” Nate answers for him. “Brad, that’s Sandy,” he says, his voice slightly strained. He sounded that way when they told him about Ray and the espresso maker, like he doesn’t believe this shit is happening to him.
“Nice to meet you, Sandy. And Beth,” he nods. “Although I’m sure you ladies have an advantage over me. Someone’s been talking about me behind my back,” he mutters, looking up at Nate, who shrugs, hands in his pockets.
“All of you,” Nate says simply. “Sandy especially wants to meet Walt. Of course, considering that as of late wherever he goes, Ray goes, it’s not happening for years. Decades.”
Sandy’s rolling her eyes, catching Brad’s eye companionably, and it’s kind of awesome. Then her eyes lose focus and she stares at something behind him. “Cake!” she yells and rushes off.
Beth smiles slightly and glances at Brad. “Can you really see what someone does before they do it?” she asks with some curiosity.
Brad looks at Nate pointedly. Nate’s shoulders are shaking slightly, like he’s trying not to laugh. “Sometimes,” he tells Beth. “Limited to combat situations, I’m afraid.”
“Okay,” she nods slowly. “Still cool.”
“That’s the highest accolade you can get. Still cool,” Nate tells him when Beth goes after her sister. “I’m afraid I’m no longer as cool as I used to be before Beth turned thirteen. So, you know, enjoy it while you can.”
It’s interesting to see Nate like this, relaxed, almost carefree, his nose reddened from the sun already. Brad stops himself from telling him to go and put on some fucking sunscreen. Being a mother hen is Mike’s thing, not his.
There’s a commotion somewhere around the cake, a dog running across the lawn. Sarah slips on the wet grass and drops the cake, icing down. “Fuck,” she says out loud, and then covers her mouth with her hand as the kids, almost as one, cackle in glee.
Nate shakes his head, bites his lip, and steps in, because that’s what Nate Fick does. Brad watches bemusedly as he and Sarah promise Sandy, whose lip is quivering already, eyes big like saucers, that there will be cake, not to worry. Brad swoops her up and sits her on his shoulders, telling her to watch out when they go inside after Nate. She bends backwards and he holds her ankles as she makes like a monkey, hanging from his shoulders as they pass through the doorframe and then she’s back up, watching Nate from the considerable height.
Nate ends up whipping up a monstrosity of a makeshift cake out of ice cream and cookies, leftover icing squeezed out of a paper tube into ‘Happy Half-birthday, Sandy’ in wobbly letters. Sandy seems to love it.
“Still better than the pound cake MREs,” Brad says. “Then again, almost everything is.”
Nate punches his shoulder lightly. He watches the kids devour the cake and then Sandy tears through her presents, her eyes gleaming. Brad watches Nate watching her fondly. He’s still unsure why he’s here, why would Nate even ask him to tag along, why Sarah didn’t even bat an eye at his arrival.
He’s not big on family gatherings, but this one isn’t bad. It feels like something he could want, if Audrey had thought he was worth waiting for.
“I’d offer a penny for your thoughts but they seem heavy. Worth at least a pound,” Nate mutters, turning to him, catching Brad’s gaze. Apparently he wasn’t as inconspicuous in watching Nate as he wanted.
“Not worth that much,” Brad shakes his head, something in his tone causing Nate to frown, deeper lines appearing on his forehead, the ones that mean he’s worrying about something. Brad never wanted to be just one more thing Nate has to worry about, not back in the desert and not now. “I should be going.”
Nate moves to stand up. “I’ll drive you-- well, wherever it is you’re going.”
Brad thinks the word that started to form before Nate thought better of it was ‘home’. Not really happening right now. “No, don’t bother, I’m fine. And I’ve been imposing on Sandy’s time with you.”
“You’re not-- Fine. Okay,” Nate nods and bites his lip. Brad turns away.
“I’ll call you, okay?” he says and he’s pretty sure he’s lying. He’s pretty sure Nate knows he’s lying too. He tells goodbye to Sarah and her husband and waves at Beth and Sandy who are toasting marshmallows over a small grill fire. Sarah calls him a taxi and shakes her head a lot, biting her lip as if she is holding back a comment. The family resemblance is uncanny, really.
He drifts off in the airport lounge sometimes around 5 am, waiting for a delayed plane.
He’s rudely awoken by the fucking La Bamba song from the alarm clock radio.
Brad stares at the ceiling for a very long while before he gets up. His watch maintains it’s yesterday. Or the day before yesterday, actually. Still, or again, or whatever the fuck.
He doesn’t think he’s insane, but then again, how can a person tell? He calls up Ray, because insanity likes company, and there’s no insane company like Ray. “I think I’m stuck in a Bill Murray movie,” he says.
Ray doesn’t miss a beat. “I hope it’s Ghostbusters. Because if it’s that Sofia Coppola pretentious artsy Japanese dicksucking crap, then... well, at least you might have a chance to bang Scarlett Johansson. I would kick her out of bed only because you know she’d like it on the floor, and Daddy likes it when...”
“Groundhog Day,” Brad says.
“Not bad. Rob some banks. Fuck someone you won’t even have to pretend you meant to call. Just don’t do that ice-sculpting shit, you might be the Iceman but this stuff is parade-marching rainbow-flag-waving gay. Where are you anyway?”
Ray’s silent for a long moment. Long moment for Ray, that is, for most people it’s the moment they take a breath. “When I said fuck it out of your system, I didn’t mean with your ex-CO. Don’t tell me that bitchwhore of your ex-fiance turned you off all pussy? I mean, sure, you and Fick have that soul connection shit but actually fucking him would be kind of gay.”
“Ray. Need I remind you of Walt?” he says patiently.
“Yeah, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like pussy anymore. I just choose to presently not pursue trims. And need I point out you’re not denying anything?”
“There’s no point in denying something that is blatantly a figment of your sick imagination. So, how do I get out of a Groundhog fucking Day?”
“Fuck that ice princess producer chick.”
That’s not very helpful.
He doesn’t rob any banks but he doesn’t follow the routine either. He finds a decent electronics’ store with excellent air-conditioning and spends a few hours there, first just browsing and then striking up a long and heated discussion with a bored clerk who seems to delight in arguing the most ridiculous points just for the hell of it.
He has Thai food for lunch and then walks around, not quite aimlessly and not quite sightseeing, finding himself closer and closer to Nate’s place without even meaning to head there. He gives in sometime late in the evening, when he thinks Sandy’s party is winding up to a close, and calls Nate up.
“Want to grab a drink?” he asks without preamble and Nate doesn’t miss a beat.
“Where are you?” he asks and promises to be there in half an hour. Brad drums his fingers against the bar counter and doesn’t watch the clock at all.
Nate arrives wearing a different shirt than Brad remembers him wearing. His hair is wet, Sandy has probably managed to drag her uncle through the sprinklers a good few times. “It’s good to see you,” he tells Brad, pulling him into a hug, three pats on the back before he moves away. “How long are you staying?”
“Just today,” Brad shrugs. Unless he’s lucky and there’s a tomorrow, but if this really is a Groundhog fucking Day it may take a while. He’s not even sure where is his ice princess producer chick. “I hope I hadn’t dragged you away from something important.”
Nate’s teeth flash in a wide grin. “A half-birthday party. It’s a long story.”
Brad nods. “Could have brought me cake.”
“There was a cake-related disaster, coincidentally.”
“Excuses, excuses,” Brad leans back in his seat, watching Nate. He doesn’t bother to pretend he isn’t, Nate probably won’t remember this anyway. Ray’s off his rocker but his suggestion from the morning echoes in Brad’s head like a particularly annoying earworm. It doesn’t seem as far-fetched as it felt hours ago.
Means he’s been walking around in direct sunlight for too long, really.
“So, the great news from the knitting circle is that you’re writing a book,” he says absently. Nate tells him it’s a vague idea.
They circle through the conversation until the small hours, until Brad says he needs to get back to his hotel, saying he needs to take a shower and grab his stuff before catching an early flight. They’re still talking, in the middle of the street, when it changes into the La Bamba song waking him up.