Combination of States

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by templemarker

Notes: This story has been on my mind for almost exactly a year. It’s plagued me with insecurity and rewrites and not a few sleepless nights; it’s been the fodder for countless analyzations over coffee and one particularly memorable three-hour car ride in which it was dissected to abstraction. This story is but half the story I want to tell; but it is the story that I have.

With thanks to everyone who has ever listened to me go on at egregious length, including dine, thessaliad, marcolette, and callmesandyk.

This is the penultimate part of the agentverse, which is as much an expression of an idea as it ever was a plot. So, here’s my suggested reading order, with the caveat that the order is thematic, not chronological, and shouldn’t be considered to take place in the same linear time. You do not need to read any of the following stories to read this story.

Only Inaction
field expediency
an ability to improvise
for the criticism of one (deterrence and provocation)
a liar, a lover, a brother in arms


Brad was tired. He wanted a decent burger, and a fucking shower that he didn’t have to share with ten other men. Mostly he wanted to get out of this god-damned fucking airfield and sleep in Nate’s–in their–bed.

Sergeant Major Milkins had a different idea.

“Colbert,” she said, clipboard in hand and no-bullshit look on her face. “Come into my office.”

He suppressed the urge to throw his duffel bag at her and run in the opposite direction. It would probably be unprofessional. And Milkins had gotten him out of a jam once or twice before, pushing in an extra day of leave so he could travel cross-country. Brad at least owed her the courtesy of letting her do her job.

The duffel got shoved into a corner of her office, and he sat down in front of Maj. Milkins’ desk, watching her shuffle paper around. After a moment, she found the file she was looking for, and sat forward to look him in the eye.

“Colbert, you’ve hit your twenty,” she said, pulling no punches. “There were a couple of compromises made for services rendered, and a personal, glowing recommendation from General Ferrando that always seems to come up in your file. This would have been brought up before you returned from Baghdad, but as it stands, it’s come up now. And here we are.”

Brad blinked. He wasn’t supposed to hit his twenty for another seven months, and he’d hoped he could put off talking about it with–well, with people until then.

“We’re going to need a decision by the end of your leave,” she continued, brusquely. “You’re invited to re-up, and if you do I have assurance that there is a mission appropriate to your skill set awaiting your deployment.” Milkins looked up, setting the file just to her side. She knew enough about Brad, from the many times he’d been pushed through this office to sign something or annotate something or verbally agree to some other thing, to know what might influence his decision to stay or go.

“Or you can take your twenty,” she said, like it wasn’t forefront in his mind. “It might be a good time to do so. You just finished a successful mission, and you have three weeks’ leave to think about it. Keep me apprised.”

Maj. Milkins looked back to her computer, and Brad knew he was dismissed. As he got up to leave, she cleared her throat. “There is a counseling service for exactly this problem, Colbert,” she said, something just shy of a shit-eating grin on her face. Brad snorted. They both knew he wouldn’t go anywhere near that wing of the base.

“Take these, and call me in three weeks,” she said, handing him a thin brown manila envelope.

“Three weeks,” he echoed, not really sure what to say. He picked up his duffel and left her office.

Lejeune was probably his least favorite of all the USMC bases he’d shipped in and out of. He’d never liked the South, though the people had always been nice enough. Brad had expected to get in and fly out to Washington as soon as his leave was activated, but instead he found himself at a car rental place in downtown Jacksonville, getting an Explorer with GPS onboard.

He threw his things in the back and got in, setting the destination as Nate’s townhouse and turning on his phone in the parking lot of Enterprise. Brad had several missed calls and four voicemails waiting for him. One from his mother, one from his oldest sister, one from Ray, and one from Nate. He turned it on silent and threw it on the passenger seat, putting his laptop bag into the footwell and turning on the vehicle. It was easy enough to find a station playing mindless classical music, and he turned the car onto the state highway leading to I-95.

Brad had seven hours, six if he pushed hard, to think of a way to tell Nate about the papers in his bag.

Of all the things they’d talked about, in the years they’d been more-or-less together, they’d never actually talked about this. Brad figured that somewhere in his fourth Middle East/Central Asia tour Nate had given up on the idea that Brad might want to get out. Somewhere in his second Brad had realized he actually would.

There hadn’t been a moment in his life when Brad hadn’t wanted to be in the Marines. From the military school his parents had grudgingly agreed to let him attend to the moment he got his papers for early enlistment signed, Brad had never wavered from his vocation. He’d always pushed harder, set higher goals, reached them and set higher goals still. Twenty years in the service, twenty-four embracing military life, and that devotion had only ever been tested once.

Nate had said he was leaving the Corps, a year after their invasion mission into Iraq, and the words I’ll go with you had crowded his mouth before he realized what he was about to say.

He’d said okay instead, listened to Nate’s plans for a business degree and moving to the east coast. He’d planned a truly heart-stopping paddle party with Poke, consoled Wynn about their collective loss, took Wynn’s eye-roll and blatant disregard of DADT and ignored it, letting Nate have the good-bye he deserved and not the one Brad wanted to give. Brad’s attachment to the Royal Marines was nearing finalization, after an agonizing wait for plans to come together, and Brad was helping Nate move out to Cambridge before going on to Lejeune to ship out.

They had never talked about what they were doing, different things on different continents, thousands of miles apart but maybe closer than they’d ever been at Pendleton–without subterfuge and carefully screened misdirections in the way. They’d never talked about it, and instead pretended like they weren’t departing each others’ company for years.

That was how they’d found themselves, five years ago and change, in Nate’s apartment with boxes surrounding them, beers hanging from their fingers, tangled up in a half-naked sweaty mess on a pile of towels in the living room. Brad had kissed the top of Nate’s head and kneaded fingers into Nate’s arm. He couldn’t even get up enough energy to properly mock his own words when he said, “Does this mean we’re breaking up?”

Exhaustion and good sex coloured Nate’s voice as much as humour when he replied, “Not if you can keep up a long-distance relationship, which I have it on good authority you can.”

“I never should have introduced you to Shaina,” Brad said grumpily. “You were supposed to hate her for hurting me or something.”

“Oh, I do,” Nate assured him, tongue licking against the skin of Brad’s chest, making him squirm. “But she has all this dirt on you. I played nice for intel.”

“You played nice because you wanted to go golfing with Steve,” Brad accused, tightening his fingers on the longish hairs at the back of Nate’s head.

“That too,” Nate said placidly, pushing up to swipe at Brad’s mouth.

And that was their discussion. When Brad was on leave, he came to Nate, and they would sometimes go out to California together. When Nate had school holidays, he’d sacrifice some–most–of them to fly out to Britain, staying in the village near the training facility and lugging a case of books with him. It had worked, for two years it had worked, until Nate’s course had finished and Brad’s assignment was completed. And instead of talking with Nate about what Brad was going to do next, Brad signed up for another mission to Iraq, pretending he didn’t see the well-concealed disappointment on Nate’s face in the ten days he had to help Nate move to DC.

A brief stint in Kuwait, and then off to Baghdad, three months in Anbar actually doing recon and liaising with British troops. A couple weeks on a ship and then a couple months jockeying a desk in Pendleton got him on a tour to Afghanistan not much later, and in Afghanistan, seeing the work he and his men had done there, well. That kept him in service for the last couple of years, until he walked off a Herc at Lejeune and got hit in the face by this two-by-four.

He’d been on the road an hour, had just made it to I-95 pointing northbound when his phone went off, vibrating madly. He cursed, reached one long arm to grab it, and felt familiar guilt when “nate nate nate” flashed across his phone. Brad flipped it open and didn’t even have a chance to say anything.

“I thought you were supposed to be on a plane into Washington,” Nate said, annoyance clear in his voice.

“I changed my plans,” Brad said, tucking his phone into his ear and sliding into the far left lane to cruise.

“It would have been nice if you fucking told me,” Nate said, “I made plans based on the itinerary you sent me last week.”

“I’m sorry,” Brad said; he’d learned quick that Nate went a little easier on him if he got that out of the way fast.

“Sorry doesn’t un-brine my ribs, Brad,” Nate said. That tone of voice meant Brad probably wouldn’t be forgiven until he’d done something suitably restitutionary, like re-grout Nate’s tile.

“I’m driving,” he said, opting for truth now that he was stuck with the results of his choices. “I’ll be there in six hours.”

There was silence on the line. “Six fucking hours?” Nate said low, dangerously low. Shit. Brad had actually pissed him off this time. A truly pissed-off Nate was pretty rare, but when it happened Brad spent weeks making up for it. Fuck. “What do you mean, six fucking hours. You were supposed to be here by three, Brad, and–goddamnit–fucking–” And click went the line.

Brad pulled the phone from his ear and looked at the screen for a second, darting between it and the road. He forced his body to relax, muscle by muscle, until he’d pushed himself back in his seat and his shoulders weren’t up by his ears. If Nate was this pissed about Brad changing his travel plans without telling him, he was going to shit bricks when Brad told him about his papers.

If Brad told him at all.

Forty minutes later “nate nate nate” flashed across his phone again, where it had never left Brad’s hand. He thumbed the green button, and Nate said, a little gruffly, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to yell at you like that.”

“I should have called you when I changed my plans,” Brad said, smoothly passing an old Ford pickup. “I just–I didn’t want to talk.”

“That’s a shitty excuse,” Nate pointed out, and Brad winced. It really was.

“I’m sorry,” he said again, hoping it would be enough.

There was silence, and then a deep sigh. Brad let his eyes shut for one brief dangerous second; Nate forgave him too easily.

“Five hours?” Nate asked.

“And change,” Brad replied. “Unless I hit traffic on the Beltway, but it should have thinned out by the time I get into town.”

“It never thins out,” Nate said pessimistically. “I’ve got the ribs on the grill. You can have some when you get in. I’m going to be working in the study.”

“Okay,” Brad said. “See you soon.” Nate got off the hook without saying goodbye. Maybe he hadn’t completely forgiven Brad after all.

Five hours and change on interstate 95 meant a lot of time to think and ignore the increasingly persistent phone calls coming through to his phone. Mom, Anna, Ray, Ray, Poke, Ray, Dad, Mom. He didn’t answer; this was why he hated it when his mother updated the family calendar with his fly dates. People always thought it was okay to call and check in on him.

He watched the mountains give way to hills, and the night start creeping closer. He threw on his lights and stopped at a taqueria outside of Richmond for a couple of quick tacos; Nate would actually be more pissed at Brad if he’d made ribs and Brad didn’t eat them, so he had to save some room. The traffic on 495 sucked, but it could have sucked worse, and he got to Logan Circle with only one or two murderous rages to spare.

Brad spent twenty minutes trying to find street parking for the larger-than-a-Prius vehicle he was driving, and ended up parking two blocks away from Nate’s townhouse. He pulled his bag from the car and hoisted it over his shoulder, carrying his laptop in his other hand. The streetlights gave the quiet neighborhood a warm feeling, and Brad only glanced around briefly on his way to Nate’s place, intent on his route.

He got to the doorstep just as the door swung open, and Nate was standing there in a white undershirt and jeans that Brad recognized as his own, pissy look on his face and his arms crossed over the coffee stain on his shirt. Nate had clearly worn those jeans to tick Brad off–Nate knew how he felt about sharing the stuff stowed in Nate’s bottom drawer–but Brad wasn’t going to rise to the bait. Instead he dropped his bags onto the concrete, stepped forward, and pulled Nate into a kiss.

At first Nate resisted, mouth firmly shut and arms still crossed, but Brad was nothing if not persistent. When Nate opened to him, Brad grunted in satisfaction, and gathered him close. For some reason, he didn’t fucking care if the entire District was up their ass right now. This was what he wanted.

They were breathless when they parted, and Nate looked a little red in the face, stepping back and taking Brad’s laptop bag with him. Brad followed him into the front room, dropping his duffel on the couch, and into the kitchen, smelling a version of the ribs his father had spent a lifetime perfecting coming from the counter. Only half the lights were on in the house, and Brad’s eyes were glued to the place where Nate’s shirt stretched too tightly over his shoulders, worn around the edges. Brad wanted to peel it off Nate with his teeth.

Nate ignored him, just pushed a plate with a half-rack slathered in sauce, roasted potatoes, and grilled green beans towards him; he turned to the fridge and grabbed a couple of longnecks, popping the tops and giving one to Brad, sitting opposite him at the island. Brad let him have his little silent war; he already knew something of how it was going to end. Besides, there were ribs, and Brad remembered the two weeks in Oceanside when his father took Nate step-by-step through the way to make them perfect.

Brad said appreciative things about Nate’s food and Nate’s cooking abilities, to which Nate alternatively grunted and snorted, sipping at his beer. They were both passable cooks, but Nate veered more towards taking an actual interest in cooking, more than Brad’s usual mac and cheese or steak and potatoes. Brad went grocery shopping, something Nate loathed, and he cleaned up the grill and washed the dishes. It balanced out.

By the time Brad finished his food, Nate’s look had deflated from pissy to moody, and Brad resisted the urge to roll his eyes. Nate didn’t get stupid often, but when he did there was a delicate process to getting him out of it. Brad wiped the back of his hand across his mouth, then reached across the island and pulled Nate into another kiss.

This time there was no resistance, and Nate was moaning into Brad’s mouth at the first press of tongue. Brad gripped Nate’s shirt and pushed a hand against the counter for balance, biting and licking until he heard the thunder of Nate’s breath echoing his own. Brad let go of Nate’s shirt and reached up to touch Nate’s face; when he opened his eyes Nate’s were still closed.

“I’m sorry,” he said again, because it bore repeating.

“I know,” Nate said, the hint of his earlier frustration showing.

“Nate,” Brad said, waiting until Nate’s eyes lifted to meet his own. “I’m really sorry. I should have called, and I shouldn’t have changed my plans without talking to you first.”

Nate searched his face for a moment, mouth twitching and mind clearly whirring. “Yes,” he said, hand coming to rest over Brad’s on the counter. “Okay, yes, I forgive you. Were the ribs good?”

“Almost as good as my dad’s,” Brad said, pulling back to put his dishes in the sink for tomorrow, feeling Nate come up to thread arms around his chest, sliding against Brad’s back.

“Someday they’ll be better,” Nate said, muffled against the fabric of Brad’s fatigues.

“You keep thinking that,” Brad said, closing his eyes and leaning against Nate. “That’s what he wants you to believe.”

Nate shook a little with laughter, and Brad pushed his fingers through Nate’s left hand where it rested just above Brad’s bellybutton. “Were you able to take time off?” he asked, running his thumb lightly over Nate’s skin.

“A half-day on Thursday and all day Friday,” Nate said regretfully; it was Tuesday. “The Helmand review is about to come out, and I have to push through meetings for the next few days until I can hand it off. But you could meet me downtown Thursday if you wanted. We could go see a movie.”

“Maybe,” Brad said.

There was a comfortable silence as they stood watching Nate’s darkened garden out the kitchen window, the only hint of earlier tension visible in Nate’s grip of Brad’s waist. Nate wasn’t particularly touchy, and he was very not into public displays of affection, but occasionally he seemed to need more contact than usual. Brad was happy to provide.

“Why did you give yourself seven hours to think?” Nate asked quietly, voice still muffled.

Brad didn’t answer at first, just kept staring out the window at nothing, feeling Nate’s arms around him like five hours ago Nate hadn’t hung up on him. “Can we talk about it later?” Brad asked, all too aware of the plaintive note in his voice. This was his fucking vacation, goddamnit. He didn’t want to get into a fight–another fight–until there had at least been some sex.

Nate sighed and said, “Fine.”

In bed, Nate’s anger and Brad’s preoccupation melted away; they’d always had this affect on each other, an ability to erase concerns by walking through the bedroom door. Sometimes it was for the worse; tonight it was for the better, and Brad had every inch of Nate he could reach and went back for more, recalling the taste of the skin behind Nate’s right knee despite eight months away from it. Brad made Nate come before he let himself go, and that night he slept unguarded and unburdened resting in the heat they had generated.

The next day Brad woke by rote at five in the morning, finding Nate had already departed on his morning run; Brad would have to familiarize himself with Nate’s new routine. He didn’t bother to put on anything but a pair of sleep pants thrown carelessly over a corner chair, scratching his chest and making his way to the kitchen. The coffee maker was one of those over-complicated all-in-one devices, and after half a minute of inspection he pressed a button that seemed to put things in action.

He pulled out a chair at the kitchen island, the one Nate was sitting in last night, and rested his head on his arms. They wouldn’t have time to talk about Brad’s fuck-ups and options this morning, since Nate would be on his way to work the moment he got out of the shower, and that bought Brad some time. They probably couldn’t meet for lunch, if Nate was taking the end of the week off, and that meant Brad could do some of the shit he’d wanted to do upon getting home–and think while he was doing it.

It was likely that Nate would force him to have the conversation tonight, though. It wasn’t like either of them to shy from a fight, but really Brad had just wanted to spend some time relaxing on his leave, not dealing with life-changing personal issues.

The coffee maker gave a pleasant ding, and Brad grabbed a mug from the counter and poured himself some. After checking the time, he pulled out another and shook some turbinado sugar into it; Nate was kind of a pussy about his coffee.

Sure enough, a couple minutes after Brad had his first sip, Nate jogged through the door pulling his earbuds out. “Oh, you made coffee,” he said, sounding relieved. “I’m running a little late, I promised Alonna I’d make it to an eight o’clock meeting.”

Brad held out the mug and admired the flush of sweat on Nate’s throat; he wished he was still allowed to mark there. Nate took a long sip, making an appreciative noise; maybe Brad could talk him into a quickie in the shower.

He followed Nate upstairs, and smiled a little at the trail of clothes Nate left on the floor. Nate would never be that careless if he didn’t want Brad to buy a clue. He set his coffee on the vanity and pushed off his pants, shoving aside the shower curtain to see Nate half-soaped under the spray, coffee mug balanced precariously on a ledge above the nozzle.

Nate smiled, and Brad’s dick got harder. “Nice to know your reconnoitering skills aren’t slipping,” he teased, pulling Brad closer with a slick hand.

“Wait until I test yours,” Brad murmured, tipping Nate’s face up and into a kiss, fingers slipping down to pull on Nate’s dick.

Nate pushed him back against the tile, and Brad shuddered a little at the coolness of it; then he shuddered again at the sharp bite Nate gave to his nipple. Brad thrust against Nate’s stomach, lazily running hands over his body, seeking out the sounds Nate made. The noises he made, god, Brad missed those the most; Nate had always been unabashed in his pleasure, and Brad had become trained to the sounds of Nate touching, Nate fucking, Nate hungry for more. There had been times, trapped behind bullet-pitted HESCO walls in Afghanistan, picking off enemies one by one, that he’d allowed himself to falter in his concentration. When he needed something to push him through the tension of sitting in one uncomfortable place for hours on end, he’d close one eye, put the other against his scope, and think of the sounds Nate made when he shook on Brad’s tongue.

It was that thought, the sense memory of restraint mixed with the undeniable presence of the star of his fantasies, that sent him over with barely Nate’s hand on his dick. Nate jacked him through it, kissing Brad like he’d waited a lifetime to do it, and Brad thought maybe he had.

Without preamble, Brad dropped to his shaky knees and bit just below Nate’s bellybutton; here, Brad was allowed to mark. The shocked, uneven noise Nate made was a bonus, and Brad wasted no time sucking Nate’s cock down. Brad used the gasps and grunts Nate was making to judge how close he was, and pushed past his own resistance to bring Nate into his throat, sucking at the base until he felt Nate’s fingers dig into his shoulders. He pulled back just enough to catch Nate’s come on his tongue, breathing through his nose and letting his fingernails dig into the skin of Nate’s thigh. He was allowed to mark there, too.

After Nate’s hips had finally stopped jerking, Brad pulled off and rested his head against Nate’s thigh for a moment, enjoying the water dripping off Nate and onto him, enjoying the firm press of Nate’s hand against the back of his head. He stood, gripping Nate and the shower bar for balance, and pressed his lips against Nate’s, knowing Nate could taste himself on Brad’s tongue.

“I think I’m even more late now,” Nate said with a grin, kissing Brad quickly before stepping out of the shower and grabbing a towel. Brad moved into the spray, grabbing the soap.

“I suspect it was worth it,” Brad said. Nate’s head poked out of his towel and he smiled.

“Of course it was,” he said, reaching in the shower for another kiss and undoing all his work. “But I really have to go, Alonna’s going to kill me. I can’t even take the Metro now, I don’t have enough time to walk. I’m going to have to drive.”

“Does Mike still give you shit about driving yourself?” Brad asked, rubbing shampoo onto his head.

Nate laughed. “I’m pretty sure Mike thinks I should never be allowed behind the wheel, and I told him, if he wants to come up from his hick porch and drive for me, he could do it. Otherwise he should shut up and let the District of Columbia give me a goddamned license.”

“Go forth and conquer the streets of our fair capitol, Captain,” Brad said, eyes on Nate’s ass as he left the bathroom naked. “Let me know if you want anything special for dinner.”

“We get unlimited text messages on our phone plan now,” Nate’s voice called from the other room. “I’ll text you after I get out of my meeting.”

Brad didn’t say anything, just stuck his head under the spray. When he finally came out of the shower, Nate was leaning against the door in his suit and tie, unabashedly admiring Brad, who slung a towel across his neck.

“One more, but you can’t get me wet,” Nate said quietly, stepping forward to press fingers against Brad’s face; he did that sometimes, as if to prove to himself that Brad was actually there. “You can’t deny a man who’s been going without.”

“I’d never deny you anyway,” Brad said, taking care to lean in out of the way of Nate’s clothes to fuck his tongue into Nate’s mouth, wishing he could do more when Nate strangled out a moan.

“Meeting,” Brad said, lips swiping across Nate’s.

“Maybe I can blow it off,” Nate said hopefully.

“Meeting,” Brad said again firmly, stepping back.

“Fine,” Nate said with a sigh. “But you better be naked and ready when I get home, because I’m not spending the whole day half-hard without reason.”

Brad laughed. “I’ll have dinner on the table too, honey.”

Nate raised an eyebrow. “You better,” he said, turning to go down the stairs.

Brad finished drying himself off, hearing the front door shut, and went into the other room to put on some clothes. There weren’t a lot of clothes in the drawers he’d staked out for himself, mostly civvies he didn’t have enough occasion to wear. He preferred comfort over style, and mostly didn’t deviate from the jeans/t-shirt/flip flops combo. In the drawers he found new, washed pairs of the briefs he preferred, and his second-favorite pair of nearly threadbare jeans waiting for him. That plus an old, faded 1st Recon shirt set him for the day.

He looked around the bedroom. It was messy, for Nate. There were clothes piled on the chair, a precariously stacked set of books on Nate’s night-table, and several empty glasses crowded on Brad’s night-table. The sheets were dirty from last night, but Nate had been overworking himself as usual and probably hadn’t had a chance to change them anyway. Brad raised his arms, stretching until he was just shy of touching the ceiling, and set to work cleaning up.

He put everything away, stripping the bed and starting a pile for laundry. Without sheets the bed looked even larger than it usually did–the last bed he spent a night in couldn’t even command the name. Nate’s pillows, on the left side of the bed, were punched and out of shape. Brad’s were still rectangular and fluffed. He took the glasses downstairs, and put them and the dishes from the night before into the dishwasher, letting it run while he went back upstairs with the vacuum cleaner.

The list of chores he made in his head grew longer as he wandered around the house, the drone of the vacuum drowning out his other thoughts. He needed to dust shit, because Nate always sneezed and had to go outside when he tried to; he’d have several loads of laundry, including the stuff from his duffel, and he should probably take his uniforms to the dry cleaners as well. He’d have to ask Nate where to go, and whether he had anything to pick up. Grocery store on the way back, maybe grab some cleaning supplies too because the bathroom could use some attention. Brad didn’t understand why Nate didn’t just suck it up and pay for a service; he insisted that he meant to clean, but it was clear to both of them that he just didn’t have time.

Brad put new sheets on the bed and started the first load of laundry, and when he was done his stomach decided to make its presence known. “Damn,” he said under his breath. He’d lost track of time doing these little things.

Grabbing the keys to his rental, he checked to make sure he had his wallet and headed out the door. He’d planned on returning it today, but since Nate had taken his own car he called to keep it through the week. He could always return it early if they didn’t use it.

He looked at the long list of missed calls and debated returning some of them, but instead he tapped out a, “im home love you call later promise” text to his mom, cc-ing Ray because he knew it would make Ray sputter and laugh, and shoved it in his pocket. Two seconds later there was a call, and Brad ignored it, going to the closest drive-through and ordering three breakfast sandwiches and an iced coffee.

Brad took up the morning running errands, loading up his Explorer with shit from Target and Safeway and carefully thinking around his impending life choices. It was one o’clock before he made it back to the house, nearly toppling over trying to carry too many bags inside. The only perk of going out in the middle of the day was getting a decent parking spot in front of the house, and Brad caught himself observing the various points of activity around Nate’s street as he ferried things between the car and the kitchen. Two kids ran out into the street only to run back onto the sidewalk; a small white dog was barking incessantly three doors down; a black Lincoln had circled the block twice now, but the windows weren’t tinted and the driver seemed to be peering at a GPS device, so it probably wasn’t an intelligence agency being sloppy.

When he finally hauled the last bag inside, he opened the fridge, which looked pathetically empty. There were some old take-out boxes stacked in a back corner, and a pint of milk that was about to go out of date, and that was it. Nate had been eating at his desk again, Brad thought grimly. He thought he’d been more effective earlier in the year when he’d mentioned to Nate’s assistant the importance of leaving work at a reasonable hour.

Pulling things out of bags and putting them into the fridge filled it up pretty quickly; for one thing, Brad was pretty keen to test out this grill Nate had been going on about for months, and he was suitably California enough that a shit-ton of vegetables were going to make it on there, as well as some nice lamb chops he’d picked up at the butcher shop he’d eyed the last time he was here. The cleaning supplies went under the sink, and Brad loaded more laundry into the dryer and the washer before taking a beer and his laptop, going out into the back garden.

It was a sunny day, still summer if edging slightly towards fall, and there was enough shade from the house that he could look at his laptop screen without a glare but catch some of the sun on his skin. A quick glance at his personal account revealed more emails than he cared to look at right then, and so he skimmed for anything important before pulling up MarineNet. That was more quiet than usual, and though the staff he liaised with knew he was putting in for leave, the lack of chatter was noticeable. There were a couple of small things he replied to quickly, and another follow-up email from Maj. Milkins reminding him of his deadline to reply. As if he’d forget.

Sitting here, looking at the grass that needed mowing, the weeds that needed killing, the grill that was awaiting his attention later in the day, seemed a far cry from the desert he’d left a mere thirty-six hours ago. He’d never quite gotten the hang of this, brief interludes of civilian life. To some degree, especially when he was younger, he was always counting down the days until he got back to work. Not that he didn’t enjoy his leave–it had been nice to be with Shaina and his family, nice to use his bike again. Nice to be with Nate, but odd not to be working with him.

Leave had always felt like less of a respite and more of an…escape, in a way. An escape from his real life, out in the field, out working. If he was honest with himself, he couldn’t easily imagine himself going into it full-time. He had never exactly planned on being a lifer; but he had never planned on leaving the Corps, either. There was an upper limit to what he could end up doing, some day, and he figured he’d end up training grunts one way or another. Not yet, that was for sure, but some day.

This, though. This whole retirement thing–Brad didn’t completely understand why it caught him out of left field.

Brad opened a new browser window and looked at baseball scores, pushing thoughts out of his head. It wasn’t that easy, though. There was no artillery-induced peace out here, in this quiet urban neighborhood in DC. His mind was too loud and wouldn’t shut off.

What if he took it? something in him asked. Brad stared blindly into the kitchen through the French door. What if he stayed?

He and Nate had never talked about it; they had talked around it, sometimes, and Brad had always kept Nate informed about the assignments he was given, and the ones that he took. A couple times he’d turned down being TL-recon on high-risk missions, passing them on to younger, eager Marines and training them within an inch of their lives to meet their objectives. A couple of times now he’d done that, and he didn’t regret it, but he didn’t examine too closely why he had, either. It wasn’t unusual for sergeants to train Marines that way, and he was considered a good Gunny for pushing his men harder, but something in him knew that he did it because Nate would disapprove of the unnecessary risk.

Brad always came here first, when he got leave or short libo out of Fort Meade; even if they were going somewhere else, back to California or down to Baltimore, he always came to Nate. They rarely argued when he was here, only argued a little in email when Brad was away. They had never spent more than a couple weeks together between Brad’s tours, or Nate’s schooling and work. What if he stayed, and it didn’t work?

The deck chair scraped the ground when he pushed it back, walking out into the garden and kicking off his sandals to feel the long grass on his feet. He stripped off his shirt, tossing it on the table, and looked up into the sky through his sunglasses. It looked not unlike a clear day in Iraq, blue sky mixing with green trees, the faint chatter of birds in the distance.

He’d toured between there and Afghanistan, four, five, six times. He’d fully expected to re-deploy out to Helmand, pick up with some SAS buddies out there and work out a more efficient ground force-air relay arrangement between OPs in the province. He’d been looking forward it, had started to map out possible field-clear routes between Sangin and Nawzad. But something–something kept him from just asking Milkins for re-up papers and handing back the retirement package.

And yet–the last time he’d gotten his orders putting him into Ramadi, he’d thought he’d something on Nate’s face, a flash of anger or something like it. Something unexpected, that was for sure, but then they’d gone out with a couple of Nate’s buddies from school who were working up on the Hill, and never talked about it again. Nate had fucked him hard that night, and Brad wore the bruises unashamedly into work, letting the boys crow about how Brad had got some. Nate sent him emails like usual, pictures of his niece and thoughts about work, and had never said anything more than an encouraging straight-forwardness in response to Brad’s replies about what he did in those months.

Brad let out an irritated breath and dropped to the ground, counting out push-ups every time he hit the grass. One. He could send the papers back to Milkins, take his re-up, and deploy as planned. Thirteen. He could sack up and talk to Nate about it, see if Nate even wanted him to stick around longer than a couple weeks. Twenty-two. He could pretend that nothing was going to change at all. Fifty-six. He could keep fucking lying to himself. It had worked so far. Seventy-four. He could admit that this was something he might have thought about, once or twice before; the possibility of staying with Nate more than just part-time, of seeing if this was something that could work.

At seventy-five he dropped to the grass, breathing steadily in and out his nose, letting his mind wander with the rattle of adrenaline. Fuck it. Something in him didn’t want to tell Nate that he was leaving again, and he wasn’t going to pussy out of dealing with this shit. If Nate said he didn’t want Brad there full-time, then Brad would deal with it. If Nate thought it would work if he stayed, Brad would deal with that too.

In the meantime he needed a shower, and then he could start prepping the chops for dinner. If he called Alonna in an hour, he could conspire with her to get Nate out of the office and home by six. It was almost his own fucking vacation anyway. Brad headed into the house, grabbing his laptop and shirt along the way, and went upstairs.

The Weber Summit that Nate had bought earlier that year was unassuming under its black protective cover, and Brad had been inclined to mock the shit out of him for dropping two grand on it until he’d seen pictures from the barbecue the Fick family had held at Nate’s house in May. The food that had come off that grill, from the pictures Nate emailed to him, looked so fucking mouth-watering that it put Brad off his jalapeno and cheese for three days. Nate had updated him with each new challenge he’d set for himself, when he had time to cook and invited some of his boys over for beer and poker. First it was a pork loin that Brad made him describe in excessive detail; after that it was a full chicken rotisseried in all its juicy glory; then Nate’s first failed attempt at making the Colbert family rib recipe, followed shortly by a more successful second try.

Brad had been looking forward to firing up this first world technological wonder for months, and he carefully prepped the lamb he’d bought and cut up some zucchini and portabella to throw on in the last few minutes. Add some brown rice, and his mother would actually be proud of him.

Shit, his mom. She was going to fucking come out here and murder him in his sleep if he didn’t call her soon; she wouldn’t care if he were naked with a hand on Nate’s dick, she’d still chew him out so the whole neighborhood could hear. Sighing, he wrapped the lamb in saran wrap and put it back into the fridge, jogging out to the car to collect his phone. In the couple hours since he’d forgotten about it, the thing had collected four more missed calls, a lewd text from Ray, and an equally lewd text from Nate that read, “I WANT MEAT FOR DINNER !!!”

Nate had never actually learned how to turn off the capslock on his phone. It was annoyingly endearing, since Brad had shown him how to do it more than once. He dismissed all the messages, went to the missed call list, and hesitated for half a second before choosing his mom and pressing “call.”

The phone rang as he walked back into the house, and he made it back to the washer to pile out the just-washed clothes and pile in some astonishingly fucking dirty ones when the line clicked through.

“Bradley Issac Colbert,” said his mother, sounding pissed. “Your Staff Sergeant in charge of the returns desk is a very nice young lady named Regina Sarter, who politely answered the phone no less that four times and informed me that you had, in fact, landed safely in this country and she had no further information on your whereabouts. Four times this woman spoke to me, and my own son couldn’t call to tell me he was alive and well and in the United States?”

“I–” he said, but predictably she cut him off.

“And I spoke to Nate this morning, and he said that not only did you arrive in DC unlike the itinerary you sent me last week said you were going to do, but you drove there, like a maniac, on no sleep and that horrible desiccated chicken they feed you in the military?” His mom was really ramping herself up this time. Brad should have called her earlier. “You drove there! Eight hours in a car and you couldn’t answer one of my calls? I know you received them, Bradley, I know what it sounds like when you don’t answer and it goes to voicemail!”

“It was six hours,” he said, and the upset huff of breath told him he said the wrong thing.

“I swear to God, Bradley, your father said that maybe you just needed some time to decompress, but you always call when you get back! Always! That is the rule!”

“I’m sorry,” he said, shoving jeans into the washer with more force than was strictly necessary. “That is the rule. I’m sorry.” Clearly he was just destined to get chewed out by everyone.

“Well,” she said, calming down a little. “I hope you got some nice thinking done on your little joyride, because now you better explain yourself. You don’t put a long trip on top of a long trip unless you have something on your mind.”

Brad closed the lid and set the dial, turning to lean on the washer as he tried to figure out what he wanted to say. His mom wouldn’t immediately come out and say he should take his twenty–she knew him too well for that. But she’d probably be thinking it, thinking about Yom Kippur and birthdays and family events. Having him here for things instead of unreachable on the other side of the world.

He couldn’t talk to her about it yet. Not until he’d figured out what he wanted to do, instead of what she wanted for him.

“I can’t talk about it yet,” he said finally, closing his eyes at her disapproving rush of breath. “Mom, listen, I can’t talk about it until I’ve talked to Nate about it.”

There was a pause. “Fine,” she said. “But I’m holding you to this conversation for later.”

He gripped the washer behind him tightly with one hand. That would be fun. “Fine.”

“Now, if you’re not going to tell me why you’re being all recon on your family, Bradley, you can at least listen to what your sisters are up to. Now, Anna has been teaching at that Free School, you know, the one in Coronado…”

Brad held in an irritated breath. This was going to take awhile.

He walked around the house, stopping in the living room to re-shelve books, listening to his mother tell him about his aunts and uncle, his cousins, his sisters, his nephew, his nieces, his grandparents, and every single relative she could come up with to keep him on the phone. He ran the swiffer on the downstairs floors, replaced the toilet paper in the half-bath beneath the stairs, cut up the vegetables for dinner, measured out rice into the rice cooker, folded the dry clothes and put the wet clothes in the dryer. Forty-five minutes later he was still on the phone.

“–and so I told your Uncle Emmanuel, Manny, we really can’t put together the barbecue this year. It’s his turn after all, and just because he wants to go to Greece–”

“Mother,” Brad said, cutting her off.

“Yes, my very rude child?” she said, but she was smiling, he could hear it.

“It might only be late afternoon for you, but it’s after five for me, and I bribed Nate’s assistant to get him on his way home around six. I love you, and I’m sorry again for not calling yesterday, but I really have to go.”

“You’ll call me on Sunday?” she asked, warning in her voice.

“Yes,” he promised. “I will call you on this Sunday and every Sunday hereafter.”

“You better,” she said affectionately. “Be good to that man of yours. He deserves it for letting you do the things you do.”

“I know,” he said, trying not to crush the phone in his hands. It was the third one he’d had to have replaced; he was really bad at taking care with them. “I love you.”

“I love you too, Brad. Your father says hello.”

“Hi to dad. Bye.”


Brad closed his eyes when the call ended and rested his head against the fridge. Sweet fucking jesus, his mother was crazy.

He sighed, put the phone on the counter, cracked open the fridge and pulled open a beer. It was after 2100Z. Perfectly acceptable to start drinking.

His phone vibrated, and Brad hesitated a second before picking it up; he huffed out a small sigh of relief that it was just Alonna, letting him know that Nate had been shoved unceremoniously out the door ten minutes ago. He loved that woman. He needed to order her some flowers.

Brad pressed the button to start the rice and went outside to fire up the grill. With a beer hanging between his fingers, The Bodyguard soundtrack coming out of the stereo, and a plate filled with meat and vegetables ready for grillmarks, Brad was almost able to forget the cold shock of dread sitting in his stomach. He’d managed not to think about his fucking papers while his mom was running off about crazy family members, but staring at the blueish flames of the grill, it came swiftly back.

He tapped his fingers against the bottle in his hand, and told himself firmly that he couldn’t do anything right now. He’d made a decision: he was going to tell Nate tonight. Beyond that, the situation was unknown. He took a pull off the beer and rubbed his hand on the back of his neck. Brad could hear the sounds of Nate’s next-door neighbors float across the wooden fence, and he tried to pick out the number, gender, and age of each to pass the time.

He managed to drive himself crazy for the length of time it took to get the lamb cooked through, putting the vegetables on towards the end. Brad heard the front door swing open and checked his watch; 18:22 local. Maybe he’d get Alonna chocolates, too.

“Honey, you’re home,” Brad shouted into the house, rewarded with Nate’s familiar laughter.

“Be right out,” Nate called back, and Brad listened to him thump up the stairs over Whitney promising to always love him. He flipped the lamb, admiring the color his marinade had put on it, and dug his toes into his sandals when he heard Nate coming back down.

“I like it when you call me honey,” Nate said, pushing into Brad’s space and wrapping arms around Brad’s waist. “It makes me feel all manly.”

“One would think your Airborne billet would do that more efficiently,” Brad replied, moving his tongs to his left hand and swinging an arm around Nate. Nate had changed into a thin grey t-shirt with a picture of a teacup on it that said “Welcome to Maryland,” and cargo shorts with no shoes. Brad gathered some of the shirt in one hand and used it as leverage to nudge Nate forward and up. “I believe I was told something about ‘being ready’?” he asked.

“There was also something about naked,” Nate said, smile edging his mouth, “but we can pick that up later.” He pressed his mouth against Brad’s, and Brad relaxed for the first time in hours.

Kissing Nate always felt easy. Maybe they’d had to work at it in the beginning, years ago, when they were figuring all kinds of shit out, but Brad didn’t remember that. Brad loved the taste of him, the way he always met Brad head-on and never gave any ground. They were evenly matched in this, and Brad sometimes let himself get lost in it. Before, when Brad was on leave, they’d sit and watch the game and make out lazily during the commercial breaks, sometimes hours of kissing marked by the occasional interest in a good pass. Now Brad felt Nate’s hands tighten, his breathing quicken, the sharp sweet noise Nate made when Brad pressed closer. He could fucking do this forever.

“When’s dinner?” asked Nate when he pulled back, tongue running along the lips Brad just bit.

“Soon,” Brad said, cutting his eyes to the grill. Nothing was burned, but it was close. He reached for a plate. “Can you set the table and get me another beer?”

“You got it,” Nate said, squeezing Brad one more time before letting go. Brad stopped what he was doing for a second to watch Nate walk away; he had never come down firmly on which view he preferred.

Nate came back with plates, silverware, and a couple of bottles, setting the patio table and humming to Curtis Stigers. Brad snorted and finished pulling the food off, setting the plate on the table and heading back into the kitchen to grab the bowl of rice. Sitting down at the table, he got caught on the outline of Nate’s face against the yellowed light of the porch next door. He was young still, always would be younger than Brad, but Brad remembered what his face looked like unlined and without the weight of action and choice. Sometimes, like now, there was a weird double-vision: Nate back then, passionate and skilled and still learning, and Nate now, solid and confident and somehow more content in himself. Brad had catalogued some of the changes over the years, but they were always more apparent when he came back from deployment. He constantly relearned Nate, in a way.

Nate looked up and caught Brad staring, and smiled in reaction. “What?” he asked, “do I have something on my face?”

“No,” Brad said, shifting in his chair and forking some zucchini. “My eyes just got caught on the light. Pass the rice.”

Nate’s eyebrows went up, but he did pass the rice, and time slipped away over dinner. They talked about Nate’s work, Brad’s work, co-workers and the stuff that needed to be done to the house and whether Brad should return his rental. Brad gave a brief rundown of his conversation with his mom, leaving out the part where she asked too many questions, and Nate hooked his leg around Brad’s as he listened, toes digging companionably into Brad’s foot.

“Isn’t your Uncle Manny the one who always likes to host the seder?” Nate asked, taking the last bite of his lamb chop and leaning back in his chair.

“No, that’s Uncle Abe,” Brad corrected. “Manny is the one who lives near my parents and helps with the boat.”

“Right,” Nate said thoughtfully. “I always get them confused.”

They lapsed into silence, and Brad didn’t let himself fiddle with the label of his beer bottle. Nate’s feet wandered into Brad’s lap, and he rested a hand on Nate’s ankle, thumb pressing against the bone.

Nate seemed to be idly looking around the patio, and Brad used it as another excuse to stare at Nate’s face; but then Nate turned to look at Brad, and his eyes sharpened. “So are you going to tell me why you ditched your plans and showed up six hours late without telling me?” He didn’t sound angry anymore, just a little flat and cautious.

Brad shifted in his chair, but Nate didn’t move his feet and Brad didn’t move his hand. “I needed some time to think about something,” he said slowly. “It’s a pretty important thing, and I wanted to work through it before I came here.”

Nate cocked his head. “Important like promotion important?” he asked. “Because I thought you were happy riding Gunny for several years.”

“I am,” Brad said. “It’s not that.”

Nate frowned. “Then what? You like your Captain well enough, and you’d tell me if you were having problems, right?”

“Yeah,” Brad said, hand grasping Nate’s ankle firmly. “I’d tell you. But it’s not that either.”

“I hate guessing,” Nate huffed. “And I’m clearly not going to get it right anyway, so you should just spit it out.”

Brad hesitated, and hated himself a little for it.

“When I got back they offered me retirement,” he said slowly, measuring the words carefully, looking down at Nate’s feet but not at Nate. “Sergeant Milkins said I’d have the duration of my leave to either sign off on it and discharge, or send them back and re-up.”

Nate was silent for so long that Brad had to look up. Nate was staring blankly at the wall, and the look on his face was something Brad had only ever seen once, maybe twice, and fleetingly before. Brad didn’t know how to decipher it, whatever Nate was thinking; Nate usually wore everything so transparent on his face, at least to Brad, but this wasn’t something he could figure out.

“Nate,” Brad said, tapping Nate’s ankle to shake him out of it. “I–well, I don’t want to just drop this, me, on you, but I didn’t want to send it back without seeing if–”

Nate turned, and his eyes locked on Brad. “Are you saying you’ve thought about retiring?” he asked, and there was disbelief and something else in his voice.

“Some,” Brad admitted, and watched a dozen different things run across Nate’s face. “But I don’t want to make you–”

“Wait,” Nate cut him off. “You’re saying that you got your retirement papers, and instead of throwing them out the window you waited to talk to me about it?”

“Yeah,” Brad said, confused. “I mean, it’s an important decision, Nate. I wanted to know what you thought.”

Nate’s mouth dropped open, a little, and after a second he shook it off and swung his legs out of Brad’s lap. It felt suddenly colder.

“Are you fucking kidding me?” Nate asked, but he didn’t sound pissed. “You’re actually, seriously, thinking about retiring, and you want to talk to me about it.”

“Yes,” Brad said, getting annoyed. “I am not fucking kidding you. I am fucking thinking about taking my twenty.”

There was a tense moment, and Brad seriously began to wonder what the fuck was going on, and then Nate started laughing.

Brad just blinked. “What the fuck,” he said. “What the fucking fuck.”

Nate hiccuped out, “Twenty! Your–your twenty!”

“Yes,” Brad enunciated, watching Nate turn red in the face. “I didn’t realize it was so funny. Maybe I shouldn’t have worried so much about telling you.”

For some reason that just made Nate laugh harder, and Brad decided that since they weren’t going to get anywhere at that moment he might as well clear the table. By the time he moved all the dishes into the sink, Nate had calmed down some and was rubbing a hand over his face, chuckling quietly.

“Eased up there, Bozo?” Brad asked, lounging in his chair and bringing a fresh beer up to his lips.

Nate was smiling, but not with his eyes. “You’re a dumbass,” he said, putting his feet in Brad’s lap again.

“I’ve killed men for lesser words,” Brad said idly.

Nate snorted. “Oh, please.” He seemed to settle a little more and when he met Brad’s eyes again, it was a more familiar look. “So. You might want to retire. Does that mean you want to live here?”

Brad shrugged. “Is that okay? A lot of my stuff is here.”

“You’re a dumbass,” Nate reiterated.

Brad’s eyebrow went up. “I didn’t realize that was code for ‘yes, you can move in.'”

“You’re a dumbass,” Nate said, “because you already are moved in. I don’t know if you noticed this, but all your worldly possessions are currently stored in this house. There’s a garage for your bike, and half a dozen computers stored in the second bedroom.”

“My boards aren’t here,” Brad objected.

“You can’t surf the Potomac,” Nate replied.

“I–” Brad said, but stopped when he started mentally reviewing his personal inventory. He’d ended the lease on his apartment in California back in ’06, when Nate had moved into DC and Brad was going to be in and out of the east coast over several months. It was just easier to get it moved into Nate’s apartment, and then into this house. His bike had come in ’07, when Brad drove it cross-country by himself. He sent most, if not all, of his online purchases here. He came here first.

“Oh,” he said, looking up and finding satisfaction in Nate’s eyes.

“I wanted your name on the mortgage,” Nate said, resting his chin on his hand, “but you were deployed to Anbar at the time, and there was a lot of competition for this house. I wanted this one because you said you liked the back garden when I sent you the files on the places the realtor found. You talked about maybe getting a dog, and this house had a fence.”

“I thought that we wouldn’t have to spend time laying a patio,” Brad said, remembering the exchange from a couple years ago. “It had just been finished in the remodel.”

Nate nodded. “I thought, maybe someday, you’d want to come teach at Quantico. It’s a pretty shitty commute, but people do it all the time.”

“Why didn’t you say something?” Brad asked, watching something settle in Nate.

Nate smiled. “Brad,” he said pointedly, “I would never ask you to compromise your active duty, or to leave the Corps.”

Brad was quiet for a second and then said, “Do you have that little faith in me?”

“It’s not about faith,” Nate argued. “It’s about you being happy. I never thought you’d be happy leaving the opportunity to see combat, especially if I asked you to come back because I selfishly wanted you here. You’ve said it yourself–this was all you ever wanted, to be a Marine. How could I take that away from you? How could I ask you to give that up, when we pretty much worked the way we were?”

“But you weren’t happy,” Brad said.

Nate shrugged. “I was happy enough,” he said.

The heat of Nate’s skin had warmed Brad’s hand, and he ran his thumb over the arch of Nate’s foot, watching him shiver. “I wish you’d said something,” Brad said finally.

Nate shifted a little. “I’m glad I didn’t.”

“You’re a dumbass too,” Brad said.

“Yeah, but I’m a lucky one,” Nate grinned. “You came back to me, finally.”

Brad snorted. “So let me get this straight,” he said. “You bought a house, moved all my shit in, and waited patiently here like Holly Homemaker to see if I might get my head out of my ass and realize we had a life together.”

Nate shrugged again. “It was a long war,” he said. “But clearly I’m on the winning side.”

Brad dug his thumb into Nate’s foot and laughed when Nate cursed.

“And let me get this straight,” Nate said, turning serious. “You were offered your twenty, and you’re seriously considering accepting it to come out here and have this life I spent a couple years putting together.”

“I’m going to take it,” Brad said firmly. “If you want me here, I’m going to take it.”

“You don’t have to leave the service,” Nate pointed out. “You could teach.”

Brad shook his head. “I don’t want to teach,” he said. “I really don’t understand youth. They’re all fuck-ups whining that they don’t have YouTube out in the desert.”

Nate smiled a little. “You’ll get bored.”

“I’ll find something to do,” he said, reaching out to tug Nate forward. Nate climbed on top of Brad, creaking the patio chair, but they’d stress-tested the set before they bought it, and knew the chair would hold their combined weight.

Brad pushed his hands up Nate’s back, tugging off his shirt and throwing it on the grass. Nate shivered at the cool air touching his skin, and Brad chased the movement with his hands, running up and down the length of his back, watching Nate’s eyes flutter and close.

“You remember the last time we had sex on this chair?” Nate mumbled, smile hinting at his mouth.

“I remember we had a problem with how loud you got,” Brad said, pushing one hand lower beneath the band of Nate’s shorts to dig fingers into the warm curve of Nate’s ass. “I had to have a little discussion with the guy next door about outdoor sex, and while he had a nicely restored Pontiac worth talking about, I really never want to talk about sex with him again.”

Nate laughed. “I wondered why he stopped saying hello to me on my morning run.”

“It’s because you’re a loud, slutty man,” Brad confided, pulling Nate down to kiss his mouth, holding him steady with both hands.

“Not that slutty,” Nate said between kisses.

“A little slutty,” Brad clarified.

“It’s not my fault,” Nate said, tweaking Brad’s nipple and grinning when he bucked. “It’s pretty much just my right hand when you’re gone. And you’re gone a lot.”

“There are whores,” Brad said, meeting Nate’s eyes.

“Not as good as memory,” Nate replied, bending back down.

“You won’t need memory,” Brad said, breath skipping, pushing Nate off him and ushering him into the house.

“That’ll be nice,” Nate said, words belying the tension that lined his shoulders, suddenly.

Brad took two swift steps to press himself against Nate’s back, pinning Nate’s arms against his sides, biting at Nate’s earlobe. “You won’t need the memory,” Brad said again, and this time it sounded like a promise.

Brad held them like that until the tension broke and Nate pushed back, tilting his head to reach Brad’s mouth. “Okay,” Nate said, and though it didn’t sound certain, it sounded like a start. Brad walked them into the front room, dumping Nate on the couch and quickly closing the curtains before coming back to kneel in front of Nate.

“You really love blowing me,” Nate said with a smile, and in that he was both confident and right.

“You have a dick I find very appealing,” Brad acknowledged, unbuttoning Nate’s shorts and pulling him out, jacking Nate to hardness. Nate thrust up into Brad’s hand, and Brad watched Nate’s face fall into pleasure, thumbing the head of Nate’s cock to see him bite his lip. God, Brad could do this all day, mark down all the changes in Nate through every variation in breath and sound and look. But if he brought Nate off now, Nate would be up for another round by the time they got into the bedroom.

When Brad took Nate’s cock in his mouth, Nate’s hands came to rest on Brad’s head. Brad wondered if he should grow his hair out; he wondered what it would be like if Nate had something to hold on to. He pushed the thought from his mind and concentrated on the regular, firm sucks that drove Nate wild, with thumbing Nate’s nipples until they were hard and Nate was twisting between those two points of contact.

Fuck, Brad loved this, the taste and smell of Nate. He closed his eyes, pushing up and down, listening to Nate come apart, bracing his hands on Nate’s waist for control. Brad came up for a half-second of air, and the shock of that made Nate suck in a sharp breath before Brad covered him again. Brad pressed his tongue against the underside of Nate’s cock, and with a highly undignified noise Brad would mockingly emulate for him later, Nate came in Brad’s mouth. Brad swallowed, a reflex, and slowly pulled himself off Nate’s cock, feeling him shiver and twitch.

Brad bit in the same place he bit that morning, over the slight bruise, making it bigger and deeper.

“Fucking limpet,” Nate said, sounding a little drunken and spacey. Brad just bit again, hearing Nate’s soft curse, and then leveraged himself up. Nate just blinked at him from his sprawl on the couch.

“Up and at ’em, Nathaniel,” Brad drawled out. “I only have a couple hours to thoroughly fuck you before you have to go to sleep and overwork yourself again tomorrow. A day and a half until I can properly ream you out–that’s just poor planning, right there.”

Nate blinked again, and Brad grabbed his wrist and started to tug him up.

“Fucking?” Nate asked, sounding almost hopeful.

“Only if you get your ass upstairs,” Brad said. “If I had only known this was the way to get you to do what I wanted, I’d be on your cock all the time.”

Nate grinned at him and stepped out of his shorts, walking naked towards the stairs.

“Best retirement present ever,” Brad said to himself, waiting a moment before following.

Thursday morning dawned with a too-bright ray of light burning into Brad’s eyes and the gentle shove of Nate reaching over him to slap at the alarm clock. Nate started to slide out of bed, and Brad grabbed his thigh and dragged him back.

“I have to run,” Nate protested, shifting slightly as Brad pressed into the vee of his thighs.

“Innaminute,” Brad mumbled, rubbing his face against Nate’s chest and wrapping his arms around Nate. “Y’always steal the covers, you gotta make it warm again.”

He felt Nate laugh beneath him. “It’s summer. It’s already warm.”

Brad bit carefully at Nate’s nipple, which was conveniently close. Nate yelped, and Brad tongued the flesh to hardness. “No smart-ass before seven,” Brad rebuked, and let his head rise and fall with the rhythm of Nate’s breath. Nate’s hand came to rest on Brad’s head, and Brad could sleep like this anytime, anywhere.

Ten minutes later the snooze went off, and Nate groaned and pushed Brad off. “Fuck, I’m going to be late again,” he said, climbing out of bed. “Enticing fucker.”

“I bet Alonna never lets you curse like that,” Brad commented, grabbing a pillow to hold on to. “Besides, you’re taking a half day. Who cares if you’re late?”

Nate flashed him a smile. “Alonna has a mouth on her like you wouldn’t believe,” he said, “and if I’m taking a half-day, then I really need to get in there early and reassure Vikram that he isn’t ruining his career by editing this report.”

He bent to pick up his running shorts, and Brad admired the lean taper of his waist. Brad just liked looking at him. He never let himself have photographs on deployment, even though most of the guys he served with had some kind of idea that there was someone at home. It was too tempting to look at a photo if he had one; instead he made up for lost time when he was on leave.

Nate stood and frowned at his stomach, picking at something that flaked off. “I think that’s you,” Nate observed. “Because I came all over that pillow that’s on the floor.”

“I had to do more laundry anyway,” Brad said lazily.

“I guess I’ll take a shower when I get back,” Nate sighed, tugging on a shirt, looking over his shoulder at Brad. “You coming, Gunny?”

“Don’t call me that,” Brad grumbled, rolling out of bed and taking the shorts Nate handed him. “It makes me think of Mike when you do that, and I don’t like being naked and having to think about Mike.”

Nate laughed. “I think he’d be flattered,” he said. “Not everyone can bag the Iceman’s attention.”

Brad grabbed the back of Nate’s shorts and pulled him back. “You’re right about that,” he said, scraping his teeth over Nate’s neck where Nate had told him not to mark, moving down to where Brad had set his teeth in Nate’s shoulderblade.

“Fucking–” Nate cursed, reaching back to goose Brad’s balls, which jarred him out of the embrace. “I swear to god, it’s like all you want to do is fuck the shit out of me all the time.”

Brad just stared at him incredulously. “Yes?” he said. “Yes. There is no other answer.”

Nate rolled his eyes, but his look was fond. “Time to run.”

“If you can run with your ass in a sling, Officer Grab-ass.”

“If I can run with Sixta up my ass, I can run from the poor excuse for a fucking you gave me last night,” Nate teased, and was out the door and down the stairs before Brad had finished tying his shoes.

“That little shit,” Brad said, hurrying to finish off the laces before racing after him.

They ran down R Street until they hit Vermont, and then detoured down to Logan Circle Park, making two laps before exiting onto Rhode Island; it was a nicely shaded street just starting to come alive with the day, and when they turned on to 15th the sun was hitting off the sheen of sweat on Brad’s arms. A left on R took them back to the house, and they tumbled inside, Nate close on Brad’s heels heading for the kitchen for some water.

They hydrated, until Nate caught sight of the time and ran upstairs. Brad pressed the button for coffee and wet down a kitchen towel, running it over himself to collect the sweat and throwing it in the direction of the washing machine. He could take a shower after Nate had left. Brad turned on the news and ignored it, pulling out the eggs and bacon he’d purchased yesterday and started making breakfast.

Twenty-three minutes later, Nate ran back down the stairs, adjusting his tie. Brad held up a coffee thermos and a napkin-wrapped breakfast sandwich, and Nate stared at his full hands. “You are my favorite person in the world right now,” he said gratefully, taking both items and pressing a firm kiss to Brad’s mouth. “I love you, you can either drive, park on G street and walk to the office, or take the U to Metro Center. I’ll see you at one and we can go to that pasta place you like. Bye,” he shot over his shoulder, running out the door with his tie flapping behind.

Brad leaned against the counter, crossing his arms, eyes trained on the doorway. He scratched at his stomach and took another sip of his coffee, listening to his eggs pop and sizzle in the skillet. He ate methodically, letting the little aches and pains he’d been steadily ignoring for weeks settle into his body, wincing as he reached over to fill his mug with coffee again. He slumped over the kitchen island, listening to Al Roker recite birthdays on the television. Brad probably needed to pay a visit to the base doctor, just to get checked out, but he hadn’t made an appointment. It seemed like a waste of time, since he only had a couple of weeks.

He guessed he’d have to make one now.

Dumping the dishes in the dishwasher, he drowned out his own thoughts in the shower, scratching at the peeling skin on the back of his neck and cleaning the webs of his toes. When Nate was doing his graduate work, he’d had a shitty third floor walk-up with groaning pipes and an assaultive water pressure. In the mornings after his run, Nate would sometimes sing, badly off-key, when he took his shower: Stevie Wonder songs, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley. Brad could hear him from the bedroom, thin walls hiding nothing, and would listen to him butcher the songs like it was in-tune radio. That, probably, was when Brad knew it was more than something finite. But knowing and doing were two different things.

He’d started to gather more of the laundry into piles when his phone rang, Avril Lavigne’s “Girlfriend” blaring shrilly from the Blackberry’s speaker. Brad hesitated before picking it up, but he really didn’t have a choice. “Ray,” he said, shoving half his duffel into the washer.

“You fucking Ayn Rand-loving dicksuck,” Ray said as a hello. “Why the fuck didn’t you answer the phone the first twenty times I called?”

“I don’t think you can actually direct homophobic language at me anymore, since I am in fact a homosexual,” Brad mused.

“The fuck I can’t, I was up your faggoty ass before Nate ever bought a clue that you were in the Shirtlifters of America Club–wait. Was that you coming out to me? Did you just have a moment? Is that going in your memoirs? ‘I was Recon, in the Field and in the Bedroom: The Brad Colbert Story.'”

“Lifetime wouldn’t buy the rights.”

“I could sell ’em to Bravo.”

“They wouldn’t do business with a little homunculus like you.”

“Go on, use those big sexy words, it just makes me hard in my pants,” Ray said. “Look, asshole, you should have called me three days ago, but that’s okay, I’ve forgiven your jerkoff ways already. Your mom told me you weren’t dead, and I would swear my life on her knishes, and besides she said you had to listen to that story about your Uncle Manny that you hate, so the karma kind of pays itself back.”

“Have you been talking to Rudy again?” Brad asked idly, measuring out detergent.

“Someone has to be a grown-up for that portfolio of his,” Ray argued. “You know he was letting his account manager invest in non-liquid assets? I had to stop that shit before it started.”

Brad snorted. “Fucking mother hen.”

“Fucking crazy giant bastard who doesn’t answer the phone,” Ray retorted. “Look, bitch, my point is that Kasey’s mom is coming into town next week, and since Darth Mother-in-Law will be around to watch Jamie, Kasey cut me loose to come see how you gay bastards are making out in Ye Olde District.” Ray paused. “No actual making out, please, my video camera is in the shop and I need to be able to sell that shit for Jamie’s college fund.”

“You’re so charming, Ray, of course you can come out and sleep on the garage floor,” Brad said, folding towels.

“You sure you don’t have any picnics with your boyfriend planned?” Ray laughed. “I don’t want to intrude on some of that hand-holding you gay dudes do.”

“That’s not what we hold,” Brad said, deadpan. “And I’ll have enough time to take him on picnics after I retire.”

Ray made a derisive sound. “Please. I’d brand your ass with ‘Property of Nate Fick’ and still I couldn’t drag your DADT-lyin’ self out of the service.”

Brad walked over to his laptop bag, pulled out his papers and the pen from the front pocket. “I’m signing them right now,” he said, scrawling his name across page after page.

“Bull-fucking-shit,” Ray said. The line went silent. “Brad? Brad, are you serious? Are you fucking shitting me, or are you serious like that time you took me to get tested for gonorrhoea?”

“Hang on a second,” Brad said, pulling the phone from his ear while Ray squawked away. He took a photo of his signed retirement papers and emailed it to Ray.

“Check your inbox,” he said, interrupting Ray talking about the Queen of England and Richard Dawkins.

“Fuck you,” Ray said, and Brad heard him messing around with his computer. “Holy fuck,” Ray breathed. “Your papers. You actually did it. You became a bitch for Nate’s cock.”

“Less of one than you are for Kasey’s,” Brad commented laconically, but he paused before saying, “I did actually do it.”

“I think I’m feeling proud,” Ray said wonderingly. “I’m not used to that. Pissed, yes. Shit-talking, yes. But I’m proud like when Jamie crawled for the first time. My baby’s growing up!”

“Can it, Ray,” Brad said, but he didn’t mean it. The line fell silent for a companionable moment, and then Ray said, “So I guess you will have time to take Nate on all those picnics.”

Brad laughed, hard and long, until Ray was asking about his health, whether he was having an episode and did Ray need to call the doctor.

“I’m thirty-seven,” Brad said between laughs, “and all I ever wanted to do was be a warrior, be a Marine. And now I’ve got a house, a partner, and a pension.”

“You’re living the dream,” Ray said.

“I think I am,” Brad said.

“Look, I’m booking a flight for next Tuesday and I’m going to stay until Saturday,” Ray said. “Run it by Nate for the okay, and I’ll see you then. You’ve got three weeks to get the eagle talons out of your ass–try not to weep all over yourself with joy for your new life choices.”

“Don’t choke on Kasey’s pussy,” Brad said as a goodbye.

“Every night, baby,” Ray said happily, clicking off the line.

Brad checked the time on his phone before tossing it on the kitchen counter. It was 11:20, and he’d need about twenty minutes to get down to Nate’s office to meet him at one. He made himself a sandwich, with a little less of the roast beef on it than he would normally use; the brown butter squash ravioli at Marcone’s was worth it. He watched a little bit of yesterday’s tennis match, licking the mustard off his thumb and drinking half a glass of milk while Elena Dementieva smacked the shit out of a little yellow ball.

He did more laundry, checked his email, debating calling Anna but decided he’d had enough of being chewed out for one day. He thought about going upstairs to try and sort through the motherboards and heat sinks he’d ordered while he was deployed, but it would be too easy to get sucked into it and lose the whole day. Instead, Brad checked movie times at the Landmark, trying to find something indie enough that Nate wouldn’t check his Blackberry constantly but not so indie Brad would want to throw things at the screen.

After loading the dishwasher and setting it to run, running his eyes over the news headlines and a couple of tech blogs he kept up with, and doing yet another load of laundry, Brad could finally justify leaving the house. It was ten past twelve, but Nate wouldn’t mind if he got there early and yanked him out of the office. Probably. Maybe. He wouldn’t have a choice, anyway.

The Metro was clean and not too crowded; it spat him out at Metro Center and he rode the escalators up to above ground. It only took a couple steps before he saw something appropriately patriotic and historic; in DC, there were American flags everywhere.

Pennsylvania Avenue had the usual crush of people, doubled at lunchtime with people in black suits walking swiftly past people in blue suits, talking to people in black suits. In his cargo pants and t-shirt, Brad looked more like a tourist than a resident. He liked that.

He picked out a service uniform here and there: a couple Air Force colonels sitting at a cafe, an Army NCO talking on his cell phone, three green-looking PFCs laughing as they walked towards the Capitol Building. He scratched a hand over his head, feeling the places where it had grown out a little, and wondering if he should have at least grabbed his USMC baseball hat.

Nate’s building was boring, like every other office building in the world, and over air-conditioned; the cold air blasted at him as soon as he walked through the door. He shivered and put his hands in his pockets, walking to the elevator bank. Stepping out on the seventh floor, he waved at Marcos.

“I haven’t seen him yet,” Marcos said apologetically. “Alonna said to tell you she was trying to get him to finish up early, but he’s been on a conference call for the last couple hours and hasn’t come out of his office.”

“Is Charlie around?” Brad asked, resting an elbow on the ledge.

Marcos grinned. “He’s trying to convince Leslie and Vikram that Nate doesn’t have to be present in the office when the report is published. Leslie thinks that Nate should at least teleconference in, and Vikram is still fighting for the second pass of the draft instead of the third, and Charlie is probably going to kill them both soon.”

“You’re a good man, Charlie Young,” Brad said, grinning a little.

“I don’t think anyone else properly appreciated that picture on the front office Christmas card,” Marcos said. “It takes real skill to draw someone you know as a Peanuts character.”

“It’s the gift that keeps on giving,” Brad agreed. “Should I barge in on Nate, or bother Charlie until Alonna cuts Nate off?”

Marcos frowned at the phone system. “I think you should probably go talk to Charlie,” he said doubtfully. “That call’s been going on for a long time, and Alonna hasn’t even tried to go in yet.”

Brad let out a breath through his nose. “He better not try to stay for ‘just one more minute,'” Brad grumbled. “I already reserved movie tickets.”

“Getting Nate to take a vacation is like waking the President up in the morning,” Charlie said, walking into the lobby. “Frustrating, improbable, but ultimately necessary.”

“Charlie,” Brad said with a smile, sticking out his hand. “Good to see you.”

“You too,” Charlie said, shaking Brad’s hand firmly. “Glad you’re getting Nate out of the office. I was sure we’d have to shoot him with a tranquilizer and ship him to an undisclosed location just to get him to rest a little.”

“Like tranquilizers would stop a Marine,” Brad scoffed.

“Oh, I forgot, Marines are actually superheroes,” Charlie said.

“We fight dragons in dress blues for our country,” Brad said, crossing one foot over another. “That’s pretty much the definition of a superhero.”

Charlie rolled his eyes. “You are never going to let the dragon go.”

“Hey, it got Deanna,” Brad pointed out.

“I will never forgive you for telling my sister that the Marine Corps was a valuable personal experience,” Charlie said.

“You were the one that introduced her to your boss,” Brad said. “It’s not my fault he’s the poster child for a Marine Corps officer.”

“Yeah, well, at least she’s at MCBH,” Charlie said. “Thanks for that, anyway.”

Brad shrugged. “She was a fit for the position, and I thought she’d like Hawai’i.”

“Still, I appreciate it,” Charlie said. “Want some coffee?”

“Sure,” Brad said, and they walked through the muted halls of the office to the breakroom. People were hustling around, papers and cell phones and computers in hand, looking busy and hassled and maybe a little crazy.

“Is this report really that big of a deal?” Brad asked, sipping his coffee. Not bad. About the same as what he got on FOB Scorpion.

Charlie shrugged one shoulder. “It is for Vikram,” he said. “They’ve been putting together this tactical review for the past couple weeks, building off information that’s been available publicly; Leslie got a background with a Major, and there was an embed willing to talk to us as well. The Brits have played pretty close with their intel, given the public opinion and the casualty rate, and this may challenge some conceptions about reaching the publicly stated objectives if it gets picked up enough by the print and digital media.”

“And you’re letting Nate take off?” Brad questioned.

Charlie snorted. “I’d have shoved him out the door on Tuesday if I could have,” he said. “Everything’s in place for the release, and he’s reviewed the material to clear it, but he doesn’t need to be here for the actual release. Fatemeh–you met her at the company picnic last year?–she’s been covering PR since Robert went on paternity leave, and she’s checked everything there is to be checked, twice.”

“I don’t feel so bad for making him take the time off, then,” Brad said, taking another sip.

“And you’re taking him to California next week, too?” Charlie asked.

“Week after next,” Brad clarified. “Family obligations.”

“If he tries to call here, throw his phone out the window,” Charlie advised.

Brad allowed himself a small smile. “He won’t be doing any work calls.”

Marcos ducked his head in. “Nate’s off his call. You can probably interrupt him now.”

Brad set aside his coffee. “I have some frogmarching to do.”

Charlie waved a hand. “Go forth and conquer,” he said. “Better you than me.”

Nate’s office was at the end of the hall; the blinds were closed and the door was shut, but Brad ignored all of that and loped right in.

Stacks of paper were everywhere, and Nate was hunched over his laptop, jacket off and sleeves rolled up. Several coffee cups were strewn over his desk, and he had a pencil shoved over his ear. “Alonna, do you have that Foreign Policy from December ’05? I need to cross-reference something that Gravilis said with–”

“I’m not Alonna,” Brad interrupted. “I’m your lunch date.”

Nate froze and looked up. “I need fifteen–”

“No,” Brad said. “Sorry. It’s already one o’ clock and I was promised Marcone’s.”

“Seriously, just five–”

“Request denied.”

Nate slumped in his chair. “I need to send this email, just this one thing, okay? Promise.”

“Alonna,” Brad said, hearing her come up to the door. “Is it really one email?”

She walked into Nate’s office, heels clicking on the floor. “It’s never just one email.” Alonna stood a foot shorter than Brad, even in the Jimmy Choos Brad knew were her bonus last year, but when she crossed her arms even Brad thought twice about interrupting Nate’s meeting.

“Look, Ambassador Siriani personally emailed me–” Nate started.

“To talk about golf scores,” Alonna said pointedly. “It can wait until you get back on Monday. I promise I will tell you if anything important comes up.”

Nate squinted at her. “Liar.”

Alonna grinned. “Yep. Go on, take your tall, handsome, deadly man out to lunch. Vikram is breathing into a paper bag, he’ll be fine.”

“Lunch and a movie,” Brad clarified. “I need to be treated right.”

“Of course you do, honey,” Alonna said, patting his arm. “Get Nate out of here before he starts talking about his handicap. It’ll segue into a discussion on Israel-Palestine, and then you’ll never get him on a plane.”

Brad grabbed Nate’s bag, shut Nate’s laptop, and stuck it inside. “Ha ha, I have your toy,” Brad said without inflection.

Nate sighed. “Dammit. Dammit, fine, I’ll go on vacation.”

“See how nice it is when you do what other people tell you? Isn’t it nice to be a grunt?” Brad said, slinging Nate’s bag over his shoulder.

“Fuck you,” Nate said succinctly, shrugging on his jacket. “Our reservation is at 1:30.”

“Mmm, ravioli,” Brad said, making Nate walk out the door first. “Bye Alonna. Don’t call.”

“Bye Brad,” Alonna said, raising a finger at him. “Don’t let him check his email.”

“I love it when people talk like I’m not there,” Nate grumbled. “I’m the CEO, goddamnit. I have rights.”

“Not today you don’t,” Brad said, pressing the button for the elevator. “Today you have ravioli and a movie. Just let it sink in.”

Marcone’s was as good as Brad remembered, and he suggested to Nate that they split a bottle of wine, since they were on vacation and all now. Nate reflexively looked at his watch, caught himself mid-way through the action, and smiled. “I guess we are,” he said, and ordered the Sauvignon Blanc he favored.

Brad ran Ray’s visit by Nate, and set it against their plans the following week to go out and see Brad’s parents and sisters. Sunday would be spent with the Fick family in Baltimore, driving down early to go golfing with Nate’s dad and dinner with everyone together. It left Friday and Saturday for them, before Nate was back at work on Monday for a week; before Ray showed up and bothered Brad for five days.

Slowly, Nate started to unwind. His shoulders relaxed incrementally, he smiled with his eyes and not just his mouth, and he drank more than half the bottle of wine. Watching him flush with laughter at the story Brad was telling about his last platoon and the donkeys was enticing.

In the movie theater, Nate slumped in his seat, resting his head on Brad’s shoulder. His hand fell to rest on Brad’s thigh, and Brad caught it with his own. The movie was funny, but not really entertaining, and Brad found himself watching their hands more than the screen.

It had never been a big deal for them, making their relationship work, being together without talking big about it. The important people knew about them, and no one else asked. This, though. This felt a little different, as if the decision they made yesterday changed something about them. Brad could meet Nate for lunches now. They could plan vacations around other people, and not whether their work schedules would overlap.

Something like the future began to unfold for Brad, and it was unsettling but also interesting. In a couple weeks he’d start his processing out, and then there was a whole new situation for him to figure out.


At Brad’s retirement ceremony, the commander of his brigade read off his accomplishments, his awards, the list of his service. Brad felt the tug of the medal dig into his chest and stared straight ahead.

“…without his direct involvement, this monumental and inherently dangerous effort could not have succeeded. Gunnery Sergeant Colbert’s twenty years of honorable and faithful service showed exceptional and steadfast ability, and is a great credit to the Marine Corps of the United States Naval Service.”

Markaley handed him his Certificate of Service. It felt light in his hands, lighter than twenty years should feel. In the audience, Nate was sitting next to Brad’s mom, the only public admission they’d ever come close to making. His mother was smiling, even though she swiped at her eyes, and his dad held on very tightly to her hand. Over Markaley’s desert-coloured shoulder, he saw Nate smile, and it took all his well-earned control not to twitch his mouth in return.

After, the whole family went out to Black Angus, and Brad ordered the bacon-wrapped filet mignon just to make him feel less weird about leaving the only job he’d ever had. Nate sat next to him, drinking a beer; he’d ditched his tie in the car on the way over, and his hair was a little messy from where Brad had put his hands in it, making out with Nate for a hot minute before going into the restaurant.

Anna smirked at him like she knew what he was thinking about, and Brad stuck his tongue out at her like he was five and she was eight again. Anna laughed, startling the baby girl she held in her arms, and Anna’s husband James took their daughter on a walk to calm her down.

“You ever think about having kids?” Ruth, Brad’s other sister asked. “You’re all retired and shit, but you’re still young. You could adopt a kid.”

“Language,” Brad’s mom admonished, taking a roll from the basket and returning to her conversation with Nate.

“I don’t think we’re really the papoose-wearing type,” Brad said, resting two fingers on Nate’s back above his chair before letting his hand fall. “I’ll leave that to the women of the family. You’ll just have to give them all ‘Colbert’ as a middle name to keep the family line.”

Ruth snorted. “Way to abdicate the family duty.”

“It’s my speciality,” he and Anna said in unison, and Brad threw his napkin at her from across the table when she laughed.

That night, in the hotel room he and Nate had booked, Brad spent the entire time staring at the ceiling. Nate was snoring next to him; he would catch the red-eye to DC in the morning and had to be up in a few scant hours to get to the airport. Brad would follow in two days, helping out his dad with wintering the boat and spending time with his sisters; they had come up for Brad’s retirement ceremony, but were staying for a short family vacation.

What next? he thought, staring at the ceiling. What now? Brad had called Poke a couple days ago, catching him right before his contract would send him back out to Baghdad. They’d shot the shit for an hour about college football and Poke’s kids and Brad’s retirement, and when the line had gone quiet, Brad broke the silence by asking the same question.

“Why do you need to know what’s next, dawg?” Poke asked philosophically, his girls screaming happily in the background. “Why don’t you just be for awhile?”

“Stop talking to Rudy,” Brad advised. “He’s infecting you with his chi.”

Poke laughed. “Naw, he’s doin’ good,” Poke protested. “And you just avoided my question. Why do you need to know what’s next? You ran the gauntlet, you made it twenty years, and you have something good on the other side. Be fucking happy, Colbert. Other people have killed to have what you have.”

“Telling me about my privilege only works if you’re calling me The Man,” Brad said, but it sounded weak even to him. He was a lucky fuck, and that’s what was keeping him up at night.

Nate snorted in his sleep, and Brad looked over at him. In the half-light of the parking lot lights, Nate was peaceful, and something in Brad’s chest tightened. Nate was worth staying for, no question. But Brad didn’t remember what peace felt like. He guessed he’d have to learn.


“Life is a process of becoming, a combination of states we have to go through. Where people fail is that they wish to elect a state and remain in it. This is a kind of death.” –Anaïs Nin

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