Fandom: Generation Kill
Disclaimer: Based on fictionalised portrayals as seen on the HBO miniseries.
A/N: Written for this prompt at the combat_jack kink meme, because some people are filthy enablers and I wasn't going to write it, and, well. Okay. (Speaking of enabling, the prompt fest is still going, and I'm writing fics from there at least till I get busy with NaNoWriMo and maybe after I'm done with it too.)
Brad's sister is the one to call and tell him. Of all the people.
It's not a scheduled call - Brad expects her to call on his birthday and before major holidays, to hash out gift ideas for the parents and to warn him what he isn't supposed to buy her daughters.
"Everything alright?" he asks, worry settling in his stomach. She never calls without reason, out of the blue like that.
She hesitates before answering, and that's even worse. "Becca?" he prompts.
"Everyone here is fine," she assures him, a curious inflection on her words. Like something, somewhere, isn't fine. "I run into Kate Walker today."
Kate Walker's maiden name is Fick. Brad grips the phone tightly, his knuckles white. "You don't even know Kate," he says. His voice sounds calm and level, but strange to his own ears, the words tasting bitter on his tongue.
"We've never actually met," Becca corrects. "But I recognised her from the pictures. And we've talked on the phone before, remember, when Jessica's doctor moved to Florida and we were looking for a good replacement. And, well, we kept in touch for a while there..." she lets her voice fade. Brad's perfectly aware why they might have stopped.
"And how is Kate?" he asks politely, wishing Becca would just get to the point. He's too tired for the whole song and dance routine, and the less he hears about the Fick family, the better.
It's not like his whole body is tensing up, expecting. Not like he wishes for a scrap of information, for anything. Not like that at all.
"She's fine, so are the girls. Nick got promoted, apparently," she says slowly and sighs. "Brad."
"Becca," he shoots back.
"You really don't know?"
"Don't know what?" he asks tersely, the annoyance buzzing in his skull. Becca was never prone to dragging out anything, she's usually succinct and to the point. Brad needs to rethink his opinion of her, apparently.
"Your recon community needs a solid kick in the ass, then," she offers flatly. "Nate's been in an accident two weeks ago."
The words ring in his ears, alien and unreal.
Last time Brad saw Nate he was in DC, in their... in Nate's appartment, in the puddle of warm light from the yellow lamp on the side table. He wouldn't look at Brad then, but he was safe and sound. Brad still carries that image, that's how he thinks of Nate before his mind works backwards, before he remembers the days and weeks before, in DC, in Cambridge, in Iraq.
The memory is still in time, like a bug in an amber. It doesn't compute with what Becca is saying.
"Is he..." he croaks and doesn't dare to finish the question.
"He's out of the hospital, but I think it was serious. I'm sorry, Brad, I don't know more." He can hear the apologetic shrug in her voice. "I wasn't sure you..."
"I didn't know."
"I wasn't sure you'd want to know," she corrects.
He probably deserves that. He never told her why... But he didn't tell anyone else either, so there's that. It stayed between him and Nate, and he wasn't even sure Nate understood it all.
Maybe he had, he always seemed to know what was going on in Brad's head. This could have been a part of the whole problem.
"I'll call you later."
"Brad," she starts and he doesn't hear the rest of it, he disconnects before she can say anything more.
His finger slides on the phone's keyboard when he dials Ray's number, has to delete digits two times when he hits the wrong key. Brad Colbert is never clumsy, never uncertain, except when it's about Nate. He doesn't trust his body when it comes to Nate, it has betrayed him before.
"Why the fuck didn't you tell me?" he asks Ray the moment he picks up.
"I know I am the fount of all knowledge and shit, but I don't have a fucking idea what you mean. My mind reading superpowers are a little rusty, so you have to be clearer than this, homes."
It's not a good day to deal with Ray's shit, but Brad forces himself to stay calm for long enough to get the words out. "About Nate."
"No, Ray, Nate Robinson, I'm curious how the fucking Celtics are doing this season. What do you fucking think?"
Ray's silent for a few moments. Seems like there is a way to shut him up, who knew? Except that Brad certainly doesn't appreciate finding it now.
"I think that the last time I mentioned Nate Fick, you told me to shut the fuck up, threatened to dismember and permanently deball me, and you know what? That moment I actually believed you might follow up on your usually idle fucking threats. Brad, what the fuck?"
Useless. "Nevermind," he says and shuts the phone with a loud click, drops it into his lap and closes his eyes.
His hands are shaking. Faint tremors, more visible in his left hand, his fingers numb.
He could call the hospital. He could call Mike, if anyone of them would know, it'd be him. Fuck, he could call Kate or Danielle, or even Nate's mother. She probably hates Brad now but she'd tell him if he asked.
He could call Nate. Hear his voice, at least, for the first time in he doesn't know how long.
Except Brad knows exactly how long, to the minute. He thought he'd stop counting after a few weeks, after a few months, but he measures out the days, measures out the beats of his fucking idiot heart in how long he hasn't seen Nate.
He picks up the phone again, thumbing the key. He hasn't erased Nate's number from the memory, it's still on the speed dial. Couldn't bring himself to do it. Wouldn't matter anyway, he knows the string of numbers by heart, but still.
The vibration startles him, the accompanying ring tone sounding more annoying than usual. "What do you want?"
"I called Mike," Ray says without preamble, getting Brad's undivided attention. "I didn't know, Brad."
"Well, now that you do how about you share with the class?" he doesn't care he sounds desperate. There are things Ray won't ever go and mock Brad for years to come, but this isn't one of them.
"Drunk driver. LT's car got pretty much totalled, nothing more than scrap metal."
Jesus fuck. "Ray."
"He's out of the hospital. Signed out two days ago, the doctors weren't happy about it, but Fick is a stubborn motherfucker, apparently," he says, sounding almost impressed. "Mike says he was unconscious for two days, pretty much touch and go. Internal bleeding, broken ribs, broken leg. One of his sisters is staying with him for a while, I don't know which."
"Jesus fuck, Ray."
His fingernails dig into his palm, probably drawing blood. The pain helps him concentrate for the moment, helps him keep his head clear.
"I didn't know," Ray repeats, strangely quiet.
"Yeah. Thanks for finding out."
"I need to go," Brad interrupts him. Ray won't care about the rudeness and to be honest, Brad cares even less at the moment. "Later," he adds.
The phone perks up again moments later, but it's Ray's caller id so Brad lets it ring. There's blood on his palm, the skin broken and stinging. It's something to keep Brad distracted from the aching pain somewhere in his chest.
The knocking is too insistent to be Dani, even if she forgot the keys again. Too angry to be a salesman or, well, anyone else who Nate can think of at the moment.
He starts to stand up and every single muscle in his body seems to protest at that. Some of his bones, too. He eyes the painkillers on the table again but decides against them. No need to add to the diziness already present.
"It's open," he yells after the knocking is repeated, louder, if that's even possible.
"Shouldn't just leave the door like that, LT," Ray tells him with reproach. "Anyone could come in."
"Too late," Nate mutters. "I own a gun, I figure I'd be alright against most of the intruders. Keep that in mind," he adds pleasantly. "Why are you here?"
"My Mommy and Daddy loved each other very much, and nine months later, this fine specimen appeared," Ray shrugs. "Do I have to have the birds and bees talk with you, LT? Because this wasn't how I intended to spend my afternoon but I can make sacrifices. Provided you have some good booze."
Nate gives in. Seems like Ray Person is really in his living room, looking around without even trying to pretend he isn't surveying the room, cataloguing everything, for the mocking potential or some other reason.
Last time he saw Ray was at the barbecue at Espera's place, some eight months ago. They left before dark, Nate had a morning flight to get him to a conference in Seattle. He planned to turn in early but then Brad distracted him by dropping to his knees in the hallway the moment the door closed and they got as far as the couch in the living room.
Same living room, same couch he's sitting on. Ray's presence connects finally, bringing back memories Nate does his best not dwelling on.
He's gotten good at that, on most days. On most days he can concentrate on work and not think of Brad for hours. Well, maybe minutes, but he's getting there. On most days, but not recently, not when he's stuck in the appartment that once was supposed to be theirs, even if Brad's name was never on the mortgage, or on the mailbox, even if his mail didn't arrive here at all.
Nate didn't think it important then, Brad had good reasons to keep it all quiet. But there were some reasons Nate had missed, things he didn't dare to consider. Brad packed light and he lived light, always ready to be oscar mike. Always ready to leave on a moment's notice.
Or without any notice at all, without warning.
"Let's try again," he tells Ray. "Why are you here, in this town, on this street, in this fucking appartment?"
"Missed you, sir," Ray says without missing a beat.
Nate gives up. "There's beer in the fridge," he offers.
"I knew you were my favourite officer for a reason, sir."
"Drop the 'sir'. I'm not your CO anymore." He's not anything else to Ray anymore, which makes Ray's presence here something of a puzzle. They used to have things in common, once, but not many and not in any way that really matters in a long run. Marines are not expected to keep in touch with civillians, grunts don't keep in touch with officers, and friends don't bother to check up on friends' exes.
And yet, Ray's here. That, or Dani got annoyed with Nate's refusal to take his painkillers and added some to his breakfast, overdid, and now Nate's having one of the most fucked up hallucinations possible.
If his mind was going to conjure up a ghost of Christmas past and shit, it could have at least have some decency and treat him to a visit from Brad. It was a truly masochist thought, sure, but Nate didn't fool himself. Fuck dignity, he'd take anything he could get, even that.
Speaking of Brad.
"How is he?" Nate asks, quietly. Ray places the beer bottles on the table and has the decency not to pretend he doesn't understand.
"Still in England. Has some leave coming up, last time I've heard, will probably be coming home sometime soon."
Nate once thought he knew what 'home' meant. Now, it doesn't matter if Brad is in the US or in England, or back in Iraq, he's just as distant everywhere. Still, stateside is better than anywhere else, it's safer. Brad home, wherever it is, Brad safe, that's a good thought.
"And everyone else? Mike says Espera is three for three on girls now. Did they decide on the name yet?"
"Isabella," Ray offers, watching Nate carefully. Ray's never careful like that, never that watchful. The only time Nate has seen him that serious was when he watched Brad after Trombley shot that kid, like was watching for cracks in the facade, worried and cautious. "I don't know how Poke deals with all that, it's all pink and frills and shit at their place now. They're throwing a picnic this Saturday, introducing little Isabella to the less respectable friends, meaning our merry company. You should come."
Gina invited him to the anniversary six months ago. Nate sent the gift and apologised for not being able to make it, made excuses about work. It was probably easier on everyone and it was the last invitation he got, too.
Mike's the only one who refuses to let go. Comes by every few weeks, or drags Nate out for a beer, keeps him updated on who's deployed and who's stateside, on all the births and marriages and career changes.
He never mentions Brad, though. It's a tacit understanding that the topic is off limits.
"I'm not exactly fit for any kind of a party now," he offers, gesturing at his leg. Ray shrugs.
"Gunny will be more than happy to give you a lift there and back. And not like a picnic is a strenous activity, you'll be fine. I'm pretty sure there are those wheelchairs you can rent, too."
That would be a splendid idea, really.
"I don't think it's a good idea, Ray."
Ray, surprisingly, drops the subject easily. Too easily, Nate would have concluded on any other occasion, but he's tired and still has meds cursing through his system, and there's an itching spot on his leg, under the cast, and it's driving him insane.
"You have a fucked up system of organising the dvds."
"It's called the alphabet, Ray."
"You know it's all a giant conspiracy, don't you?" Ray starts, picking up one of the dvd cases and slipping the disk into the player, then sprawling on the couch without waiting for an invitation. Nate closes his eyes for a brief moment and then tunes in, because he's actually mildly curious about where this particular rant will lead.
"Hey, remember that theory we could get our brains back when we left the Marine Corps?" Ray asks conversationally, like Brad is interested at all.
He's been jumping at the sound of the phone all day, checking the fucking display every few seconds, the dots between the digits of the clock blinking at him mockingly. Thank whatever passes for a higher power these days that he doesn't have actual exercises planned for the day. The diving expedition has been scratched due to some squabbles on the higher level, Brad doesn't give a fuck.
"You are a clear indication that the theory has been complete bullshit."
"The data is not conclusive. Fick's out, got his brain alright. I'm out, let's agree to disagree. You're still in and you're still dumb as all fuck."
Brad's stomach hollows out at that one word and he refuses to get tangled in another one of Ray's diatribes. "So, you're wasting money on international call just to insult me? Nice."
"If you don't want the intel that's fine with me. I don't have much time anyway, need to be at Nate's at five. Danielle invited me for dinner."
Danielle can't cook worth a damn. She tries, but she seems to be able to burn water in an electric kettle and make sandwiches using only bread and butter and ham or cheese that would turn out to be inedible. Brad makes fun of her for that, to which she points out he eats everything she makes anyway. He retorts, usually, that it's better than MREs, but only in the same way that cardboard or cement are sometimes better than MREs.
Made fun. Pointed out. He needs to get his tenses straight, he's unlikely to see Danielle again.
"How is he?"
Ray makes a small sound, almost thoughtful. He clears his throat and seems to rethink something, because there's an unusual hesitance in his tone and he stumbles over the first word, like he wanted to say something else entirely. "Not that good now, but he'll be fine. Besides, now he has yours truly to keep him company, so obviously things are looking up for the good ol' Captain Fick."
"I'm not sure he'd put it that way."
"Why don't you ask him yourself? Oh, wait," Ray draws out and promptly disconnects. Brad rolls his eyes at the cellphone.
Somehow, he doesn't quite feel better. He thought it would be enough to know Nate's fine, will be fine, that there's no permanent damage. Now he has his confirmation and it doesn't help at all, the empty feeling he thought he has dealt with has taken up a permanent residence in his chest.
He calls Nate that evening.
Realises only when the dial tone rings out in his ears, but it's too late to hang up, as Nate mutters a sleepy hello and it carries over the ocean and curses through Brad's veins.
"Hello?" Nate repeats and Brad isn't able to say anything for a long moment, and then the silence has stretched on for too long and he can't really say anything at all. He counts instead. One more hello, questioning, and then Nate will hang up. One, two, three...
Except he doesn't. There's the question and then Nate sighs, sounding tired. Not bone-weary like he used to in Iraq, but the simple tiredness of staying up late. He sounds like when he's been studying until late, until Brad dragged him out of the study and into the bedroom. Or, more often, into the kitchen first, to feed him something substantial because Nate sometimes forgets he needs to eat.
He waits, but Nate doesn't disconnect. Instead, there's rustling in the background and a familiar squeak of the bed when Nate lies down. Brad listens to the steady breathing, transfixed. He couldn't bring himself to sever the connection now for all the world, he just grips the phone tightly and listens.
Nate's breathing evens out as he falls asleep but Brad stays up for a very long time, his eyes closed, feeling like he's holding his own breath.
On Saturday, Ray brings Walt.
The whole things is briefly entertaining when Danielle takes one look at Walt and then disappears into the bathroom to fix her hair, but most of all, it's puzzling. He's not complaining, per se, except when he is, loudly.
"I told you he missed us," Ray tells Walt, voice dropped into a scenic whisper, after Nate asks if there's any hope they'd be gone sometime today. Nate doesn't argue the point, because yes, he did. The look Walt gives him says plainly that he wouldn't be able to argue the point even if he tried.
He hadn't really expected it to go any different. After he left the Corps he was still included in the various social gatherings of the platoon, but he always realised it was due to his and Brad's relationship. No one would admit it, they all carefully pretended they didn't know a thing after all, but it was very much a given. Nate was their former officer they didn't really have much in common with anymore. If you didn't count Brad, of course.
And for a while now Nate couldn't count Brad.
He glances at the watch now. It's almost time for Brad to call.
It started four nights ago. Nate can't say why he had thought it could be Brad in the first place, but he has been sure during the first call and he is sure now. There's almost no sound on the line - if he listens carefully he might catch an echo of someone breathing, but he is sure somehow, would bet his life on this.
Neither of them says a word after Nate's initial 'hello'. He doesn't bother to ask more than once anymore, there's no point. He lets the silence wash over him, settles the phone down on what used to be Brad's side of the bed and closes his eyes. It sounds pretty pathetic and he's not going to advertise the whole thing, but somehow, it helps him sleep more easily. even with his shoulder hurting like a motherfucker whenever he tries to settle in for the night.
"It was Poke today," Nate says on Sunday, startling the hell out of Brad. That's not how it's supposed to go. "Brought Isabella, came up with some story of visiting family in the neighborhood. I've heard him bitch about the neighborhood before, how far away from everything fucking ever it is. He's so full of shit."
It takes Brad a moment to realise what's familiar about the way Nate slightly draws out his vowels. He sounds drunk.
"I think I'm fucked up," Nate says, confirming his suspicions. "Turns out it's a little more difficult to convince a couple of recon marines that I'm taking my meds than it is to convince my sister. Who knew."
Nate hates painkillers on principle. They make him dizzy more often than not and it drives him insane to just stay home and not do anything, not even write his reports or read the memos or whatever the fuck. Brad could usually find some ways to distract him for a while.
"Walt rattled me out to Danielle, asshole," Nate continues, his tone a cross between annoyed and fond. "Speaking of, they seem to get on well. Person, too. My own sister is now trading recipes with Ray Person. I try not to think about it too much."
Brad snorts, quiet enough that it seems to go unnoticed.
He doesn't think Danielle has met Ray before. Kate has, that one time, and apparently, the Fick women have no taste whatsoever because she too seemed charmed. Of course, Ray had been on his best behaviour at the time, didn't even mention pussy or NAMBLA for the entire evening.
"In other news, Stafford and Christeson announced their plans to visit. And by announced I mean called Danielle and asked if it wouldn't be any trouble if they dropped by. I've only learned about it because she was telling Ray. God forbid I'd be notified, I could start planning my escape route, in a wheelchair they're trying to get me."
He's slurring his words now, probably half-asleep already. Brad thinks of telling him to just fucking go to sleep already, but he doesn't. Not only because he'd have to speak, admit he's been pussy about it before, but also because then Nate might take his advice at face value and actually hang up. Brad's not sure he can go to how it was before, to not being able to listen to Nate's steady breathing when he falls aslep.
The routine shifts.
Nate picks up and is quiet for a long moment, but when he's met with silence on the other end, he starts talking. He talks of the guys' visits, every day someone else coming out of the woodwork. Poke showed up today, with the entire family, a fate Brad wouldn't wish on his worst enemy but Nate seems to have enjoyed.
Ray called Brad yesterday, unusually quiet.
"We might have been prize fucking idiots," he said.
"That's not news and you're wasting my time."
Ray's eyeroll turned out to translate oddly well through a sound made over a phone line. "You live for my phonecalls, don't lie. You probably wait for days wishing you could hear my dulcet tones," he told Brad cheerfully, before growing serious again. "I know it's supposed to be bros before hos and all that happy machismo bullshit, but fuck it, he's still one of us, even if he broke your heart."
Brad closed his eyes. "He didn't..." he started and didn't bother finishing. Ray would be able to tell.
It didn't take long. "You motherfucking idiot. This is... homes, new levels. I don't think I can even talk to you right now, this retardation could be contagious," he said and hung up, just to call again three minutes later. "You know, he's happy to see every single retard from the platoon who triples over his feet to get here. I don't think he'd shut the door in your face if you made your way here."
"Go bother someone else, Ray. Maybe Nate, if he's so accommodating." He didn't care how that sounded, the underlying irritation probably clearly audible. It wasn't jealousy, at least not quite. Even though he did envy everyone who got to see Nate.
Maybe he could...
No, it would be worse for everyone.
"I'm getting a new cast today," Nate tells him. "I can't contain my excitement, as you can imagine," he adds wryly. "All the more space for everyone to cover with obscene limericks and drawings that make me worried. It doesn't seem like they know what a dick really looks like."
He pauses and chuckles. "Ray offered to show everyone, of course. I remember he sometimes used to shut up in your presence, how the hell did you manage?"
It's the first question Nate directed at him since the conversations... well, monologues, started. Brad isn't sure what to do, he doesn't know the SOP for this.
"I miss you. I'm telling you this only because I'm still on painkillers," he adds, aiming for levity. Brad's whole body goes numb at the soft admission, his knuckles white when he grips the phone. "Of course, maybe this is just some glitch in my phone company's system and you're not there at all."
"I'm here," Brad says, the words forming on his lips before any conscious thought reaches his brain. The reaction is visceral, his stomach clenching, and he realises he's been waiting for Nate to call him on this, to push him into speaking.
There's only a briefest of pauses and rustling in the background as Nate changes positions. "So, how do you get Ray to shut up?"
"Walk faster than him. After a while, he'll loose his train of thoughts or trip."
"Pretty useless advice for me right now."
"Get one of those electric wheelchairs?"
"Now that's a thought," Nate says and they fall back into silence, not quite awkward, not really, but far from comfortable.
"Have you ever," Nate starts absently after they've discussed Lilley's visit and Rolling Stone's new book, "wanted something so much that it felt unreal when it really happened?"
"I assume it has nothing to do with Reporter's latest exploits?"
"I've been thinking."
"You're always thinking," Brad points out, not unkindly. He'd go as far as to say fondly, and that's a clear indication he's treading on dangerous ground. Not that he ever left. "I don't know, maybe. When I was a kid I wanted a bike really badly," he jokes and it falls flat, lost over the phone line, somewhere mid-atlantic maybe.
"It always felt like too much. Couldn't believe I was lucky enough to get to keep you. Maybe that's why I didn't fight hard enough when you left."
"Nate," he breathes out, his heart frantic, trying to beat its way out of his chest. He can't talk about it, not now. Couldn't in the first place, felt pathetically grateful Nate hasn't pushed him then. He talks of not fighting hard enough but it wouldn't take much, probably. It was hard enough to leave as it was.
And he had to. Nate's talking about feeling unreal but for Brad it was as real as it got. It sounds wrong but it felt just like the drown-proofing process, just like getting shot at. It sounds really fucking wrong when he equates that to being with Nate, but deep in his gut it was the same: all about feeling alive.
He needed to leave because it got too hard to even think of leaving.
"Nothing's changed," he finds himself saying. "All the reasons, they're still there."
Nate sighs. "I've told you what I thought of those. And I've had seven months to familiarize myself with the life without you," he offers matter-of-factly even as his voice breaks a little on the final syllable, like he can only keep his emotions from bleeding through for that much time and no longer. "I don't care much for it," he adds quietly.
Brad doesn't either. What he cares about... what he cares about is the reason he ended it in the first place.
Nate might want it, want him, but he needs something else entirely. If anything happened, dishonourable discharge would annoy Brad a lot, but he would deal. Nate on the other hand, Nate's not a grunt, he's not disposable. He can make a difference. He won't get anywhere if the politicians and the generals dismiss him on the basis of who he sleeps with. Doesn't matter he's out of the Corps.
That's the selfless reason. Mostly selfless. The selfish one is this: Nate might want him, but there might come a day when he doesn't. Brad doesn't think he could go through that.
"I think I was disappointed when I got that bike. I wanted a red one and they got me some pussy blue and silver," he says and Nate accepts the change of topic, only his heavy sigh promising it's not over.
Brad isn't sure if he's terrified or hopeful.
"So, we're having a platoon reunion," Ray tells him cheerfully. "Since most everyone has already legged it here like the attention-depraved retards they are, we've decided to make it official and shit."
"Well, it was Mike's idea. Nate's mostly up and about so it's a good moment to celebrate. He's gotten quite handy with the crutches, I'm considering getting myself some just like his. I mean, they could be utilised as a pretty ninja weapon, don't you think?"
"I try not to give any thought to your retarded ideas as they never come to fruition anyway."
"I could still start that bar. I just need a little start-up capital. Hey, Brad, we could open it together, a gay bar would be straight up your alley," he says brightly, like the idea just accured to him and he thinks it's brilliant. "So, the reunion. Nate thinks you're gonna be too much of a pussy to show up."
Brad snorts. "I bet he used those exact words."
"Fine, he said not to bother you because you're busy. I called bullshit because he knows very well you have leave coming up, he was the one to find out when exactly it is, but all I got for being helpful was a heartfelt shut the fuck up."
Brad isn't sure why he's surprised. Of course Nate would keep tabs on him, and yet having a direct confirmation feels unexpectedly good.
What he doesn't appreciate is the passive agressive way of calling him a coward. Unless Nate really meant it for Ray not to say anything, of course, and now Brad's back to dissecting sentences and meanings. He hasn't done that since Iraq and all the time he spent trying to convince himself Nate didn't mean anything by the lingering looks.
"It's a short leave," he tells Ray. "I'm not sure I'm going to even bother flying back to States, might as well stay in Plymouth."
"So, you really are too much of a pussy to show up, don't worry homes, I get it."
The worst part of it all is that Ray's might be an accurate assessment.
"I suppose you're gonna miss Nate's birthday next month, too. We could sign your name on the card, I suppose. Walt was saying we should get him a puppy, which you know, isn't such a retard idea, Leslie could hook us up with a woman who breeds fucking labradoodles."
Brad waits patiently. There's bound to be a punchline incomming. There usually is.
"That way he can have someone who'd love him back and not run away." It's not very funny, as punchlines go. Not very original either.
"I might be on the other side of the fucking Atlantic, but I still know the right people back home and could have you killed."
"Don't worry, homes, I've been assured Nate is more of a cat person. That means he likes pussy," Ray adds conspirationally, like Brad's slow or retarded. "And since we've established you are one, or have one..."
"Speaking of, how's Hasser?" Brad asks pleasantly.
Ray snorts. "Cheap shot, Colbert, way beneath your standards. I'm e-mailing you the details about the reunion anyway. Mike is making hotel reservations for all those out of town, so call him if you happen to find your balls at some point."
When he calls Nate that evening, Nate sets the phone on loud speaker and gets back to typing. "I have finally convinced Jen that broken bones don't prevent me from being able to read or type. Only took weeks, mostly because Danielle told her not to take my calls. Do you know how much paperwork can be accumulated in just a few weeks?"
"I'd be sympathetic if you didn't sound so excited about it," Brad tells him.
"I've been so bored I started watching some fucking soap opera and I can't stop. I'm more than happy to have budget reports to deal with."
It startles a laugh out of Brad. Nate's answering chuckle is warm, like he's pleased with himself. It's familiar, almost comfortable.
"How much of it is bullshit?"
"The part about the soap opera. But I'm really glad to be able to get some work done." Of course he is, Nate loves his job. "And since I've decided not to quit, I really should get to those reports."
Wait, rewind. "You what?"
"Don't worry, it was a momentary lapse of reason at four am after our last conversation. I've briefly wondered if maybe then you'd stay."
"Maybe then I'd kick your ass. Nate."
"From England?" Nate asks, conversationally, without even a trace of bitterness. "I know better, and you were right, I love my job, and it's important. Not as important as you but important enough. So is yours. So, you were right."
It should feel like a validation and instead is like a punch in the gut. Brad's silent, his knuckles white and the tips of his fingers bloodless and numb. He wants to hang up, but he no longer knows what he once knew, how to sever his connection to Nate.
Not that it worked the first time, but at least he put some distance between them.
Nate breathes out, like he's steadying himself. "Doesn't mean I'm willing to compromise. Doesn't mean I don't want both," he says, in that earnest and open voice that was always Brad's undoing.
His own voice is shaking just that little bit when he speaks. "It's too much of a risk."
"Considering what I'd be getting out of it? The risk doesn't matter."
"I don't..." Brad starts, trying to gather his thoughts as his body starts to consider it a good idea to just give up and give in, his heartbeat deafening and his hands shaking.
Nate exhales, slow and careful. "Did Ray call you about the reunion?" he asks, almost matter-of-fact now, if not for the way his voice is lowered and raspy. "I know you're probably not going to show up. Still, I don't want you to make the decision because of me, they're mostly your friends."
Brad shakes his head. "No. If you have any doubts about that, I can call Ray and say you need some convincing."
"Cruel and unusual, well played."
"Nate," he says, serious again, the name whispered like a plea. "Every decision... I always think of you," he finishes awkwardly.
"Then you should come. I can promise to keep respectable six inches between us at all times. It's easier when I'm still mostly sitting down," he adds, aiming for a joke and not quite succeeding. "I miss you, but not only... I miss what we had even before we were together."
"I'll think about it," Brad says and Nate waits for a beat before changing the topic obligingly, talks about the last night's baseball game.
Brad's white-knuckled grip on the phone doesn't lessen for hours, not even once the conversation is over.
He shows up the day before the reunion, uncertainly tapping his knuckles against Nate's door. Someone is coming to open the door and Brad places his palm against the wall, steadies himself before he can talk himself out of this.
Danielle opens the door and stands there for a moment, her mouth set into a thin line, eyebrows raised. Brad holds her gaze, ready to accept any criticism she wants to give, but after maybe half a minute, her gaze softens and she steps back. She reaches towards the coat rack and picks up her jacket. "He's in the kitchen. I'm gonna go and find Ray, he's getting stuff for decoration."
"Decoration?" he asks incredulously.
She just shrugs. "I didn't ask," she smiles slightly and zips up her jacket. "This should give you an hour or so," she adds and steps out, picking up the keys from the table by the door. "Brad," she adds, like an afterthought, turning in the doorway.
"Good to see you," she nods, her eyes warm and green. Brad's chest tightens.
The radio in the kitchen is on, set to NPR, and Nate's busy typing, like he hasn't stopped since two nights ago. He only looks up when Brad stands by the kitchen counter.
There's a scar on Nate's temple that wasn't there before. His leg is propped up, the cast mostly written and drawn all over. His hair is longer, just a little bit. He smiles when he sees Brad, surprise melting into a warm welcome, into honest joy.
Coming here was a bad idea and Brad doesn't care in the slightest.
"Hey," he says, fucking eloquently.
Nate nods. "Hey yourself," he offers, his gaze flicking down and up again, like he can't take Brad in all at once. "Where's your bag? If you think I've kept the clothes you've left, you're greatly mistaken, I've donated the sorry lot to Goodwill." The pleasure in his voice belies the words. He closes his laptop and doesn't reach for Brad, even if his fingers twich and he leans forward just slightly.
"I've left it in the car, I'm gonna head to the hotel, so..."
"Like fuck you are," Nate shakes his head. "Danielle is occupying the guest bedroom, but the couch is yours."
He seems convinced Brad would pick the couch over an actual room in the hotel. He's not wrong. Brad would pick the floor in Nate's appartment over the hotel, but he's not about to admit that. "Yeah, okay."
"Good. Now, coffee?" Nate asks and stands up, a little awkwardly, but once he reaches out and steadies himself against the counter, he's moving pretty damn swiftly despite the cast. The mug he places in front of Brad is his regular.
"That one didn't go to Goodwill?" Brad asks, and it doesn't come out as light as he intended.
Nate looks down and holds his gaze, steps a little closer, his cast touching Brad's knee. "Must have gotten mixed with the others and I missed it," he shrugs, but at the same time he reaches out, his hand resting on the side of Brad's face. Brad leans into the touch instinctively, his lips brushing against Nate's palm.
Nate closes his eyes for a moment, then drops his hand and moves away, sits down across from Brad, both of his hands on the coffee mug. "How long are you planning to stay?"
"My leave is for two weeks," he says, but that's not the answer. It wasn't even that question. "I don't know," he says honestly.
"Okay," Nate nods.
They drink the coffee and then Brad goes to get his bag from the rental car parked outside. And by outside, he means at the end of the street. He forgot how hard it is to find a parking spot; that's partially why he sticks to his bike most of the time.
By the time he makes it back, Danielle and Ray has returned. It's part of why he thought the hotel was a better idea.
"See, Nate, I told you Brad wasn't a total pussy and he'd show up," Ray says cheerfully and the incredulous look Nate gives him says plainly that whatever he told Nate, it wasn't that.
"I've figured someone had to make sure you retards wouldn't trash Nate's place completely."
"So little faith in your dear marine brothers, tsk," Ray announces, then eyes him suspiciously. "Hey, did you get taller? I knew the limey assholes were experimenting with some weird shit but I didn't think you'd sign up to become a half-cyborg or whatever."
"What makes you think I wasn't one to begin with?"
"That would actually explain a lot," Ray agrees readily and nods at Danielle, who is zipping up her jacket again. "Ready?"
"Yeah. Nate, don't wait up," she says. "I'll probably stay over at Kate's."
"Subtle, Dani, very subtle."
Brad shuffles out of the way when they leave, Ray taking a moment to share final words of encouragement with him, if 'don't fuck up' passes for encouragement. And then they're standing in the corridor and Nate's still rolling his eyes and Brad doesn't know what to do.
"I should..." he starts and gestures awkwardly. Nate raises his eyebrows.
"You can play the jet lag card and turn in. Danielle got you some blankets for the couch."
The words spill out before he can bite his tongue. "What if I'm not interested in the couch?" he asks and then shrugs, trying to cover the slip. "It's lumpy."
"Says Brad Colbert, who has no problems sleeping in a grave or a rattling humvee," Nate points out, his voice remarkably steady if you consider the flush in his face and the shiver that went through his body at Brad's words. Brad wants nothing more than to reach out and feel that flush against his own skin, make Nate shiver like that again. "It's a bad idea," Nate adds quietly.
"Couch it is."
"Brad," Nate steps forward, maneuvers the crutch out of the way and comes to stand two inches away from Brad. Less when he leans into Brad's space, his hand on Brad's chest, over his heart. "I need you to be sure. I can't... once was enough."
Brad reaches up and laces their fingers together, holds them still for a beat, leaning forward to rest his forehead against Nate's. "Okay," he says, takes everything in, takes Nate in, before he lets go and steps away.
He can't sleep for hours. It's not the jet lag, really, and it's not quite about Nate's presence just a few feet away, behind the half-closed bedroom door.
It's not the first night he spent on this couch, a few times he fell asleep in front of the tv waiting for Nate, or that one time they've just fucked here and never made it into the bedroom later... And it's not those thoughts that keep him up, either.
What is causing his insomnia now is, apparently, the fact that he got so used to Nate's voice on the phone he can't fall asleep without it now.
It's a good thing he resigned himself to being a pathetic little bitch a while ago.
"It's late," Nate says. He's holding an empty glass of water, either getting a refill or using it as a convenient excuse to check up on Brad.
Brad makes a point of glancing at his watch. "So it is. Gonna tuck me in and maybe bring me milk and cookies?"
"You know where the kitchen is," Nate shoots back and instead of turning and going to the kitchen himself, he steps forward and places the glass on the coffee table before nudging Brad's feet away and sitting on the couch. "I've changed my mind," he offers.
"About the milk and cookies?"
"About tucking you in," Nate says in the same flat tone before leaning in and kissing Brad, slowly and searchingly, with the uncertainty and hesitance that was never there before. Brad moans into his mouth and pulls him close, muscle memory and instinct and no conscious thought, but his conscious thoughts don't care.
His fingers are tangled in Nate's t-shirt, and months ago, a lifetime ago, it would be the moment he'd be pushing it up, hooking his fingers in Nate's waistband, intent on palming Nate's dick. That's how it went when they didn't make it to the bedroom, just stumbled onto the couch.
Now he's shaking just from the way Nate's thumb slides across the corner of his mouth, from the way Nate's lips feel against his, soft and wet and perfect.
"I'm..." he starts when he can breathe again, albeit harshly and unevenly, when Nate's lips are on his neck, mouthing over the pulse point.
Nate pulls back, his eyes wide and dark. "I couldn't sleep," he says quietly. "It's not new, I don't sleep that well since... It was different this time, felt like I forgot about something important," he pauses to lean into Brad's touch when he runs his hand down Nate's face. "Felt like I was wasting time," he adds, his breath warm against Brad's palm.
As real as it gets he thinks, an echo of what he thought many times before. He was wrong, however, because it's nothing like the drown-proofing, it's nothing like getting shot at. It's not about feeling alive.
It's about finding out what he lives for.
"I'm sure," he says.
Nate shakes his head. "Don't." He means 'don't tell me what you think I want to hear' and Brad hates the fact that he's the cause of that uncertainty. All the reasons are still there, but Nate was right. The risk doesn't matter. "If this is what I can get, then this is what I want," Nate adds and Brad ducks his head, kisses Nate's shoulder and then rests his forehead on it. Nate turns his head, lips brushing Brad's temple.
"I'm sure," he repeats, trying to keep his voice steady and failing miserably, but it doesn't matter because something shifts in Nate's face and he blinks and bites his lip, like he can't reign his emotions in otherwise.
"You sure you're not just trying to avoid sleeping on the couch?" Nate jokes, like he's trying to fill the silence after they've already said everything they could. After the words stopped to matter and now they can't quite stop touching each other even as they stand up and Nate maneuvers around the couch carefully.
"You got me," Brad says, shrugging. It comes out not right, not like a joke at all. Come to think of it, it comes out exactly right.
"For however long you'll choose to keep me," he admits, lacing his fingers with Nate's. His reasons still stand, he knows that much. They don't matter, not in here, not between them, not when he can have this. He knows that now too.
He thought he needed all his strength to leave, before. Maybe he needs the strength to stay instead. It's more than worth it.
"You better start packing and move back in, then," Nate tells him. "If it's up to me, it's gonna be a long while."
Brad's stomach clenches with want and gratitude. "Wouldn't have to pack much if you didn't give away my stuff to fucking Goodwill."
"Really, you want to start the argument now?" Nate says, a small smile beginning in the corner of his mouth and Brad can't help himself, he has to lean in and taste it. Nate's smile grows against his lips. "I might have kept a few things," he says.
"I'm sorry," Brad says honestly.
"I don't need..." Nate shrugs. "I need you, okay? Only you."