blue flamingos

Change Unchanging

Fandom: Generation Kill

Category/Rated: Slash, R

Year/Length: 2009/ ~7000 words

Pairing: Nate/Brad, Nate/OMC

Disclaimer: No, I don't own them, for which I should think they're profoundly grateful.

Prompt: #637: Generation Kill, Brad/Nate, leaving the corps didn't mean he no longer had to worry about the UCMJ. He might be a grad student at Harvard, but retiring definitely wasn't on Brad's immediate horizon

Summary: Harvard's nothing like Iraq, but Nate's still having trouble letting go.

Beta: Brit-picked by carta

Feedback: Yes please. Even if it's bad. Especially if it's bad.

hr

Harvard's nothing like Iraq. Not that Nate expected it to be, or even thought about it like that, but once he's there, he can't shake the comparison.

It's nothing like Camp Pendleton either, for all that a couple of his marines ragged him about all those months of nothing but paperwork. Sure, he spends a lot of his time sitting behind a desk, but that's about as close as it gets. Life in the marines feels a million years ago, and never more so than three weeks into his first semester, when a girl with bright pink hair (not something Nate expected to see at Harvard Business School) thrusts a pink flyer at him as he's on his way to the library.

"Thanks," Nate says, taking it automatically.

"First meeting's this weekend," she says brightly. "There'll be cake."

"Okay," Nate says gamely. It's less weird than being than being offered porn by Ray Person, at least.

"Chocolate cake," she says, resting one hand on Nate's arm. "You should really come," she adds, smiling at him, eye lashes lowered even though she's half a foot smaller than him, and that's a look that Nate knows. He's seen it turned on enough of his marines.

He extricates his arm gently from her hand and steps back, stuffing the flyer into the pocket of his jeans. "Thanks," he says again. "I'll think about it."

"You do that," she calls after him.

hr

Nate's front door isn't as thick as he might like, which means he hears the phone start ringing moments after he steps out of the stairwell. He curses, digging through his bag for his keys and jogging for the door.

He's expecting his mom, or maybe someone from the study group he's supposed to be going to next week, no-one who won't call back, but it drives him nuts not to know who calls him.

"Took you long enough," Brad's voice says when he picks up.

Nate grins reflexively, even knowing Brad can't see. "Some of us are actually busy at two in the afternoon."

"Some of us aren't slacker students who're home in front of the TV at seven in the evening," Brad says.

"I was at the library," Nate corrects, dropping his keys in the fruit bowl with the electric bill he needs to pay and awkwardly removing his coat. "Why aren't you off scaling a mountain or fording a river or something?"

"Is it really scaling when the highest mountain around here is only 2000 feet?" Brad asks, apparently rhetorically, since he goes on before Nate can say anything. "Day off. Two week training exercise starting in a couple of days."

"Ah." Nate turns the coffee maker on, even though it's a waste making an entire pot for the one cup he'll drink. Weird to come back from Iraq spoiled for instant coffee, but he can deal with it since he didn't also come back with an urge to take up yoga, or run half-naked with a pack full of rocks. "And you decided to call and let me know so I wouldn't worry," he adds, not sure if he's joking or not. "I'm touched."

"In the head, sir, if you think I thought you'd worry about me," Brad says, for which Nate only has himself to blame. He's never known Brad not to take an opening like that. "I'm more likely to break something vital tripping over a sheep than get shot."

Nate blinks at his empty coffee mug, and finally manages, "Listen for the bleating."

"See, this is why I come to you," Brad says.

"My knowledge of the communication methods of sheep?" Nate asks.

"I was going to say wisdom and advice, but I think I like yours better," Brad says, sounding like he's laughing, probably at Nate.

There's a pause, broken by the hiss of Nate's coffee maker. He leans one hand on the kitchen counter, trying to see through the reflection of his kitchen to the road six floors below. All he can pick out are tail-lights at the stop sign down the street.

"So," Brad says abruptly and stops.

"So," Nate prompts, smiling. He's thinking about standing in the middle of their camp in Kuwait, waiting for Brad to get his thoughts together and tell him the rest of the sentence, which turned out to be about Ray and Rudy and an exploding espresso maker.

"I'll be done here soon, and I've got leave coming. Thought I might drop by."

Nate watches his own smile freeze and drop away in the window. "I don't think that's such a good idea."

"I think you're wrong," Brad says.

"I know you do." Nate fights down the urge to sigh. "You never miss a chance to tell me."

"That's because it's never not true." Brad does sigh, crackly over the transatlantic line. "If we're just friends, I don't see –"

"We're not just friends," Nate says. His voice sounds tired, tired of saying it, tired of the same argument. Tired of trying to make it be a lie when neither of them are ready to let go of the truth. "And even if we were, I was an officer, you were my NCO, people will talk."

"No offence, Nate," Brad says, and that's always, always a bad sign. Brad never uses his first name unless he really means it or he's really pissed. "But I don't think any of my superiors listen to the gossip from the Harvard Business School crowd."

"Do you know how many ex-marines are in my Monday morning class?" Nate asks. "Three. Four in my Wednesday afternoon seminar, two ex-Air Force guys living on the floor below me, and a former-Navy pilot who I see down the gym twice a week. People talk, Brad."

"Let them talk," Brad says, a carelessness in his voice that Nate never saw in Iraq, only when they got home. It doesn't feel like it belongs to his Brad, and that more than anything is why they've got to be just friends.

"I won't let you take that risk," Nate says, and Brad, sounding as tired as Nate feels, says, "You're not my lieutenant any more."

hr

Nate sleeps badly, the conversation looping through his head cut through with all the other times they've had the same conversation.

With the night he officially left the marines, Nate still halfway to drunken but genuine tears. Brad's hand on his arm, supposed to be getting him safely back to his hotel room, but they'd ended up on the beach instead, moonlight and sand and waves crashing, like some cheesy romantic comedy, not that Nate's ever seen enough to judge.

And it had all ended in tears, like he'd known all along it would if they tried, except they'd been real tears – his – not metaphorical ones – Brad's – and it hadn't ended anyway. It still hasn't.

He planned to go to the library Saturday morning, but when he wakes up, it's late and his head aches from lack of sleep. He makes an executive decision to blow off the library and his morning run – where's the fun of being a student, after all, if he can't slack off once in a while – and heads down to the basement laundry room instead. He's got just about enough functioning brain cells to cope with white versus colored, laundry detergent, and quarters, and if it all goes horribly wrong, the worst that will happen is him dying his favorite white shirt pale blue.

He finds the flyer in his jeans pocket, bright pink and smooth round the edges from being folded in there for the better part of a week. He only opens it up because he can't remember ever checking what it's actually for. It's unlikely he's going to want to attend anything on a bright pink flyer, but stranger things have happened.

Harvard Business School LGBTA Society open house

Nate remembers the pink-haired girl, bright self-confidence like no-one he knows; Marines are all about blending in. He shoves a hand through his hair, frustrated and tired. Most of the squad's gone back out, scattered all over the world, without Mike and Brad to look out for them.

Without Nate there, to get between them and command, and he knows there's someone else doing it now but he doesn't feel it. No-one ever says anything about how hard it is to let go.

His first day at Harvard, three different people gave him flyers about the armed forces alumni association. One of them caught him later, while he was having lunch, told him all about how good it was to feel part of something at school, how well everyone there understood what it was like to go from one to the other, all the friends and contacts he could make. Nate nodded along, smiled in all the right places, and bit his tongue against the urge to point out that if he wanted to belong in the military, he'd have stayed in the marines.

He knows it's unfair, and probably untrue, but he looks at his fellow students, his teachers, and he thinks that there's no-one else who went through what he did with his men.

And maybe what he's really looking for is someone who won't say they understand, or that they know what it's like.

hr

Nate's heard every joke, every stereotype, every line to keep them on one side and everyone else on the other, that the marines have to offer about being gay. He's even laughed at a few of the jokes, because if there's one thing he learned it's how to distinguish between what's worth taking personally and what really isn't. And his guys might have been crude, but that didn't mean they weren't sometimes funny with it.

None of which means he was really expecting anything other than what he gets when he shows up, an hour or so after the start time on the flyer, to a room of people and drinks and, yeah, cake, buzzing with conversation so he can't quite make out the music. There's no sign of his pink-haired friend, for which he breathes a silent sigh of relief.

He's never really been the kind of person to sit on the sidelines and wait for something to happen, and there are worse fates than making small talk with strangers. If he's going to go into politics, he's going to be doing a lot more of it. He's not going to make any friends leaning against the wall watching people.

None of which explains why he *is* leaning against a wall watching people, glass of warm orange juice getting warmer in his hand, feeling like he'd rather be assaulting an airfield or driving into an ambush. At least then he'd know what to expect.

An hour later, he hasn't done much more than smile at a couple of people in passing, but he's still there, and not as desperate to leave as he might have thought he'd be. It probably helps that he's spent the last ten minutes amusing himself by imagining what Brad would say in response to the people, the party, the way Nate tells him about it, if Nate were to tell him about it. In his head, he's doing an okay job of imagining up Brad, though he knows he's missing Brad's ability to string six random adjectives together into a razor sharp insult.

And that's when he realizes that the bright pink on the edge of his half-unfocused vision is the girl with the flyer, her back to him as she laughs at something a second girl is saying. Nate's not vain enough to imagine he's unforgettable, or that, even if he was, she'd care, but for all that he's looking for someone who isn't like everyone else he knows, he isn't looking for someone as unlike them as she is.

He puts his glass down, starts moving towards the exit, trying to look casual. It shouldn't be that hard, when he's been trained in blending in and going unnoticed. Apparently some things can't be translated over into the civilian world though, because he's most of the way to the door when he steps around a group of people blocking his path, and bumps right into someone else.

"Whoa, hey, sorry," the man says, steadying Nate with a hand on his elbow that he doesn't need.

"My fault," Nate tells him, trying to duck round him. The guy looks like pretty much everyone else in the room – Nate's age, give or take a couple of years, dark jeans, neutral shirt, black eyes behind silver glasses, cropped black hair and skin just dark enough to make Nate think he's maybe Chinese. "Excuse me."

"Crazy ex?" the guy asks, looking behind Nate like he's expecting someone to be following him with a knife or something, though the way he's smiling kind of ruins that image. "You need some cover?"

Nate's not really sure why that makes him laugh, but he finds himself nodding anyway. "Sure. Thanks."

"Right this way," the guy says, gesturing expansively to the two feet of space in front of them, and guides Nate along with a hand against his back. Nate wants to step away from it, sense memory of Brad's hand at his back when they got off the transport back to the US, when Nate was wired and exhausted and couldn't cope with all the lights.

There's nothing to miss about Iraq, except all the things he gave up without really understanding what he was giving up, and the thing he misses the most is one of the few things he can get at home: space and quiet and somewhere in the dark and the shadows where no-one will see him.

"You okay?" the guy asks when they step outside. "You got a coat or something, I can go back for it if you like." It's casual, barely friendly, concern, for someone he'll forget as soon as Nate's out of his sight.

"No. Thanks." Nate hesitates, feeling like it'd be rude to just say thanks again and walk off, but not sure what's supposed to come next. "You going back in?"

The guy studies him for a moment, then shakes his head. "Not if your crazy ex is still there. What if he saw me with you and flies into a jealous rage?"

He smiles, and Nate returns it. "There's no jealous ex. Or any other kind of ex."

"So you lured me out here on false pretenses then," the guy says. "For that, I think you should buy me coffee."

Nate takes a moment to feel really stupid for not realizing this was coming, while his mouth says, "You offered your services."

"And now I'm demanding payment for them." The guy laughs a little. "I'm just kidding. I'm Sean, by the way," he adds, holding out his hand.

Nate shakes it, Sean's hand narrow and warm in his for a few seconds. "Nate. Good to meet you."

"You too." Sean's smile softens a little. "I really was kidding about the coffee."

Nate shrugs. "There's a place round the corner, should still be open," he says, and Sean's eyes flicker over him, checking him out. Nate's glad for the weird glow of the street-lights, enough to hide the way his face warms.

"Lead the way," Sean says.

Caffeine's probably the last thing Nate needs, given the way he can't sit still while they make small talk about what they came to Harvard to study – Sean, it turns out, is in the second year of a doctorate in accounting – and Nate's initial impressions of the place. Just like the party, he's not sure why he doesn't leave, buys a second coffee for them both instead.

"So," Sean says, leaning back in his chair as Nate sits down. "You're not young enough to have come straight from undergrad, no offence, so where were you before this?"

"Iraq," Nate says, even though it's not strictly true. The months between flying home and coming to Harvard just don't seem important, however much it feels like they went on forever. Some days, they barely seem real. Sean's frowning at him, about to ask, and Nate adds, "I was in the marines."

The words sounds far stranger out loud than they should, and it takes Nate a minute to realize why. It's the first time he's said them, to anyone, because everyone he knows either knows where he went and what he was doing, or figures it out when they get a good look at him and hear him say he was in Iraq. Same way he can pick out branch of service in anyone he meets.

Sean leans forward, hands round his coffee mug, looking intently at Nate. "Would I have seen you on the news?" he asks. Nate shakes his head. "I watched the coverage, the first few days. I can't believe you were there."

Nate shifts back in his seat, uncomfortable, waiting.

"That must have been awful," Sean says, and it's not the first time Nate's heard it, but it's the first time he's heard it like it's almost a platitude, the way he used to sympathize with his sister when she fought with her friends.

He's not sure if it's what he wants to hear, what he's been wanting, but he doesn't leave, and that has to mean something.

hr

Sean said, when they were saying goodbye, "So, hey, here's my number, give me a call some time," and Nate said, "Sure," and thought that Harvard was big enough that he could avoid Sean till Sean got the hint.

Except he's still got Sean's card in his wallet come Monday morning, and if he's not going to call, he's not sure why he hasn't thrown it away.

Make a decision and stick with it, unless other intelligence presents itself, in which case, reevaluate. It's been nearly a week since Brad called, and Nate's not worried about him, sheep notwithstanding. Brad's possibly the only person Nate isn't worried about, which is a switch he's not entirely comfortable with, because he can't get Brad out of his head, Brad and his offer to come visit, and if he's not worried about Brad, he's got no business thinking about him.

Harvard's not a world into which Brad would fit. Nate's not actually sure there's any world into which Brad would fit, when he stands out everywhere, but he wouldn't fit into Nate's world now, tree-lined pathways and old brick buildings, and students with armloads of books brushing past Nate as he heads to his morning class. He can't imagine bringing Brad along to a seminar with him, or trying to study with Brad there in the background, filling up all the space.

Or maybe Nate's just not ready to have Brad in his space. He hasn't got enough resistance for that.

He's early, first one there, and he could use the time to go through his notes from the week before, or catch up on some of the reading he should have done over the weekend and didn't. Instead, he digs out Sean's card from his wallet, looking at the neat black Sean Li, cell and email address and nothing else. He kind of feels like there ought to be a message on the back, as cheesy as that sounds, but it's just smooth, blank card.

Sean, he thinks, wants to date him. Sure, sleep with him, probably, but date him somewhere in there as well, go for coffee and to the movies and, whatever, stay over or something. Nate's never dated a guy before – wasn't ready, then couldn't, wanting to be a marine. He knows college life, how well things don't stay secret.

Sean wants to date him, and Nate can't stop thinking about Brad, about this thing that he wants to make go away, so he won't be the one who ends Brad's military career.

And that's what finally makes the decision for him. It'll be enough to make him glad Person's on the other side of the country, but it's no worse than nearly getting relieved of duty for questioning his CO before his guys could get blown up. It'll be a lot less than that.

hr

"I didn't think you'd call," Sean says when Nate arrives fifteen minutes late with no good explanation, or even a good excuse. They're just going for dinner at a pizza place a couple of blocks off campus, and with the temperature hovering around freezing, they're neither of them dressed up. Still, walking through the last of the end of the day crowd, Nate feels like he might as well be carrying a sign or something.

He thinks he's covering it reasonably well, until Sean steps close to avoid a jogger with a couple of small dogs and he can't stop himself from drawing his hand away.

"Sorry," he says when Sean looks at him, expression washed out by the lack of street lights, eyes shadowed by the reflection from his glasses.

There's a pause, then Sean says, "Ex-marine," softly, like he's asking a question, except Nate's not sure what the question is. He nods anyway. "Okay," Sean says, and doesn't touch Nate once for the rest of the evening.

hr

Nate always figured he couldn't get much more different than between being a marine lieutenant in Iraq and being an MBA student at Harvard, which makes it a lot more disturbing when he realizes that the waiting, all week through three meetings that they don't call dates, is familiar for a reason. He feels like he did in high school, awkward and stumbling, not sure what the right thing is to say, half the time. He feels like everyone's watching and everyone knows.

He feels like he did in Iraq, when Brad said something nice to him and he couldn't say anything back, trying too hard not to blush, not even sure if Brad meant it. This isn't like that, because he knows Sean does mean the compliments, but it's close enough to be the mirror image, where Nate doesn't know if he means his own words. Sean's a nice guy, reasonably good looking, smart, not a marine, but everything about the situation makes Nate think of Brad, and he's certain that's a sign he shouldn't be doing it.

Saturday night, Sean walks him home after they go to the movies, some black and white film from the sixties that Sean raved over and Nate barely paid attention to. It's late enough that Nate's street is quiet, everyone either in for the night or out on the town someplace else, and he can feel something coming, wants to start gathering his marines and coming up with something vaguely inspiring to say.

The mental image makes him want to laugh, except for how complicated it would be to explain.

"Nice place," Sean says when they reach Nate's front door. "Must be good not to have drunken students passing out at your door at three in the morning."

"You chose to live there," Nate points out.

"I was young, foolish and broke, and didn't know what I was getting myself into," Sean says, smiling. "And now that I'm older and wiser, I'm stuck there."

"Older, wiser, and still broke?" Nate asks. "What are they teaching you in accounting?"

"Hey, if I had the annual income of a Fortune 500 company, I'd be golden," Sean says, mock-serious. "I work at the macro level."

Nate laughs a little, and it's only when he looks up that he realizes how close Sean's standing, feels the hand he has on Nate's wrist, over his jacket sleeve.

"This is okay, right?" Sean says quietly. "Nate? This is all right?"

Nate nods, too sharp, and tries to smile, but his face feels frozen, even after a half hour of walking to warm him up. Sean smiles anyway, and leans in, and kisses him. Nate closes his eyes –

And he's sitting on a beach in the early hours of the morning, sun just starting to come up, listening to the waves, the air damp, cold now he's starting to sober up, and he can feel Brad next to him, not looking at him, just there. He wants to say, this is the right decision, but he doesn't know if it's a statement or a question, and he doesn't want Brad to have to decide it for him. It's too late now anyway.

"Are you okay?" Sean asks, taking a small step out of Nate's space, frowning at him.

"Yeah." Nate tries to smile again. "Sorry, I'm just tired." It's a lame excuse, and he can see it in Sean's face, the uncertainty in his expression. "I'm sorry," he says again. "I know I'm shit company tonight."

Sean smiles, rubs his thumb over Nate's wrist before letting go. "You're okay," he says. "Go on, get some sleep. I'll call you Monday?"

Nate nods, trying not to look as relieved as he feels, not even sure what he's relieved about, watching Sean turn back to campus and his RA building.

Walking up the stairs to his apartment, he pulls out his cell, checks the messages. There's only one, but it's enough to make him smile for real, voicemail from Mike to say he's back in the country for a few weeks, anticipated extension to his tour no longer happening. He hits the keys to call Mike back automatically, timing his steps to the rings until Mike picks up just as he's stepping onto his corridor.

"Welcome back to civilization," Nate says, same as always, and Mike chuckles, verbal interpretation of the raised eyebrow Nate got so used to.

"Nice to be here," Mike says. "You gonna come by?"

"Ah," Nate hesitates, digging out his keys, the whole thing feeling very familiar. God knows they've done it often enough to skip the first five minutes of catching up. "Maybe. I've got class."

"Okay," Mike says slowly. Nate winces, recognizing that tone.

"You got plans with Carla?" he asks, hoping for a change of subject.

"Some. She's got work. Wants me to repaint the kitchen."

Nate smiles. Even after having been there and met Mike's wife, he has a hard time imagining Mike being a house-husband. "So what you really meant was am I gonna come by and help."

"Can't have you losing all your useful skills now you're back in college."

"I don't remember kitchen painting being covered in BRC."

Mike sighs. "Officers. You always sleep through the important stuff."

"Yeah, yeah." Nate turns the TV on, mutes the volume. He doesn't recognize the city in the background behind the reporter, but it's not in the desert, so he doesn't care.

"Brad's back soon," Mike says, like he's trying to be casual.

"How d'you hear that?" Nate asks. "You've been in the country less than a day."

"I got ears everywhere," Mike says.

"So get him to come help with the painting," Nate suggests.

There's a pause, then Mike says, "Figured he'd be busy visiting you."

"Nope," Nate says. It doesn't come out as lightly as he intends, but he can't have this conversation with Mike, no matter how good friends they are. Even in the months since Nate left the corps, Mike's never said a word about how Nate doesn't have a girl, and Nate's quite happy to keep it that way. He's definitely not up for discussing Brad's love life, or his place in it.

"Nate," Mike says, concern and warning all mixed up together.

"Everything's fine," Nate says firmly.

"And that's why you called me at one in the morning," Mike says dryly.

"I knew you'd be up," Nate says. "Wanted to say welcome back."

"I wrangle officers for a living, Nate."

Nate grits his teeth, closes his eyes. He survived Iraq and everything that came with it. This should not be the hard part. "I'm fine. Brad, to the best of my knowledge, is fine. Everything's fine."

"You need to work on your delivery if you want to be convincing," Mike advises him. "And I didn't ask about Brad."

Nate doesn't say anything. He doesn't want to be thinking about Brad, or Sean, or what he could tell Mike without saying something he'll regret.

"You should come stay for a few days," Mike says firmly, sounding a little too much like Nate's dad for Nate to be entirely comfortable.

"I'm not good company," Nate says.

"No kidding," Mike says, laughing at him. Nate joins in, a little.

"Sorry. It's nothing, seriously. Nothing major, anyway. Don't worry about it."

"Someone's got to," Mike says, suddenly serious. "Might as well be me."

"I'm the last person anyone needs to worry about," Nate says.

"Never let that stop me before," Mike says.

hr

Tuesday evening, couple of days to go until Brad's back from his training exercise, and Nate's walking Sean home this time, after a long evening with their respective books in Sean's favorite campus coffee shop.

"Think it's gonna snow?" Sean asks.

"Hope not." Nate's not a cold weather person. He's not much of a hot weather person either these days, but he can definitely live without snow.

"We could go skating if it stays cold enough," Sean offers, grinning when Nate gives him a skeptical look. "You've never ice skated?"

"Not since I was a kid. I'd probably break my neck."

"I wouldn't let that happen to you," Sean says, reaching up to rub one gloved hand across the back of Nate's neck, catching his scarf. "I prefer my dates not to include a visit to the emergency room."

"Good to know," Nate says, looking down.

"Yeah, I –" Sean starts, then says, "Alex, hey, I didn't see you."

Nate looks up to find a girl stood in front of them, looking between the two of them. She's wearing a blue hat, but it's not enough to cover her hair, purple now instead of pink. She obviously recognizes him at the same time he does her, grinning at him.

"I thought I saw you at the thing," she says. "Except when I went looking for you, you were gone. Now I see why."

She looks over at Sean, still grinning, and Nate's suddenly very conscious of Sean's hand, still on his neck, how close they're standing.

"Leave him alone," Sean says lightly. "Alex, Nate, Nate, Alex."

"Nice to meet you," Nate says.

"Oh, you too," she says overly-sincerely. "I was starting to despair of him ever finding anyone else, you know, he's very picky."

"Okay," Sean says, blushing, one hand on Alex's arm. "Enough of that. Shouldn't you be at the library?"

"It's ten thirty at night, I'm not allowed to have a life?" Alex asks. "You're not at the library."

"I've been working all evening," Sean tells her.

There's a beat of awkward silence, then she smiles again, pulls her jacket a little tighter, and says, "Well, as much as I'd love to stand here until my feet freeze, I've got things to do. Nate, good to meet you for real."

"You too," Nate says.

She kisses Sean on the cheek, nods to Nate, and walks away across the grass.

"Sorry," Sean says once she's out of hearing. "She's kind of over-enthusiastic sometimes. Probably why we broke up."

"You –" Nate says, then stops. He's just been outed to Sean's ex-girlfriend, who doesn't seem all that much like she'll be able to keep it a secret, not least since she's got no reason to assume she should. He went to an LGBTA social event, after all, that's hardly a sign he wants to stay in the closet.

"Is that a problem?" Sean asks. "I know we haven't really talked about..."

"It's fine," Nate says firmly.

"Okay," Sean says, sounding unsure. "Hey, why don't you come in? I'll make you some coffee, warm you up before you walk home."

"I'm practically vibrating already," Nate says.

"Something else, then. Something to help you unwind." Sean's looking at Nate, dark and intense, and Nate doesn't need to be a genius to get what Sean's asking.

"I... don't know," he says honestly.

Sean steps closer, cups Nate's cheek and kisses him, much more than the almost chaste kiss outside Nate's building. When he pulls back, Nate can't stop himself looking around to see if anyone saw, even though it shouldn't matter. "Come inside," Sean says. "I really want you. It's killing me, only seeing you in public."

He kisses Nate again, and Nate feels his body starting to take an interest. He hasn't had sex since before Iraq, before Brad. "Okay," he says, pretty far from being sure he means it.

Sean's RA apartment is tiny, kitchen tucked in a corner of the living room, two doors leading into what Nate assumes are the bed and bathrooms. That's about all he sees, that and the shadowed shapes of furniture in the dark, because as soon as the door's closed, Sean's pushing him against it, in the apparent belief that he'd better get on with it, before Nate changes his mind.

Nate feels like his body's running in slow motion or something, half a step behind. He's not sure what to do with his hands, ends up resting them on Sean's shoulders as they kiss and Sean pushes at Nate's clothes, his coat and scarf. He knows it'd be polite to join in a bit more, but he can't help thinking that way disaster lies.

"You're so hot," Sean mutters, mouthing Nate's neck. "I bet you look so hot in your uniform."

Nate can't stop the snort of laughter, thinking about rolling through Iraq in MOPP suits after days without a shower.

"I love a man in uniform," Sean says, apparently sincere. He gives up on Nate's sweater, going for his belt instead.

Nate takes an unsteady breath. "Maybe we should go in the bedroom," he suggests.

"In a minute," Sean says. He kisses Nate again, tongue pushing insistently into Nate's mouth, and it shouldn't be a turn-on, Sean's pushiness, but it sort of is anyway. Nate closes his eyes, tries to relax and go with it. "We can in a minute, just let me, let me..."

He rubs at Nate's cock through his boxers. "Okay," Nate says stupidly. "Yeah, okay."

He feels Sean's grin against his skin. "Knew you'd come round," he says. He kisses Nate, rough and possessive, then slides down to his knees, pulling Nate's boxers down, and puts his mouth on Nate's cock and –

And everything comes to a grinding halt.

Nate opens his eyes, watches Sean sit back on his heels, away from Nate.

"Brad," he says, voice flat.

Fuck, Brad, Nate's words, and he can practically see them hovering in the air above them

Nate's whole body's hot with humiliation. He steps round Sean and fastens his jeans again with hands that are not shaking. Back turned, he hears the shift of Sean standing up.

"The guy, from your, whatever, squad. The one you mentioned."

Nate doesn't remember ever mentioning Brad, or any of them, to Sean by name. He barely talks about them, but he must have said this.

Talk about saying the wrong thing at the wrong moment, another guy's mouth on his dick, and when the fuck did he get this sloppy?

"He's, what, your ex? Your other boyfriend?"

"He's a friend," Nate says. He's not touching the boyfriend thing, particularly when it's clearly about to become a moot point.

"God knows I'm always saying my friends' names when I'm having sex," Sean says, starting to sound angry. There's a pause for Nate to fill with an explanation that he doesn't have. Or, that's not true, he has an explanation, but it's not one he wants to give to someone who seems like a nice guy. "You should probably go," Sean says, and there's not a lot to say on top of that.

hr

Thursday evening, Nate's phone rings while he's washing up from dinner. He knows before he even picks up that it'll be Brad, and not just because Brad's the only person who never calls his cell.

Brad's the last person he wants to talk to at that moment, and it's very clear that Nate's not currently in the favor of whichever saint watches over ex-marines. Who else would be calling him?

"Just thought you might have been worrying about the sheep," Brad says when they get done saying hello.

"Should I have been?" Nate asks, smiling despite everything.

"I'm offended that you'd even suggest such a thing," Brad says.

Nate shrugs, even though Brad can't see him.

"So, all fun and games with the Ivy Leaguers?" Brad asks after a brief pause.

"Laugh a minute," Nate says. "Mike's back in the country."

"Getting like old home week over there," Brad says.

Nate hesitates, but he can't not ask. "When are you due back?"

"Sunday," Brad says. "Two weeks of leave, I thought I'd head over to California, see my folks, go surfing."

"Right," Nate says stupidly. "I'm sure Mike would like to see you, if you have time."

"Just Mike?" Brad asks quietly.

"Brad," Nate says. "We already had this conversation."

"We didn't reach a satisfactory conclusion," Brad says.

Nate leans forward, rests his head on his hand. He knows how this conversation would have gone, a couple of days ago, the words he'd have used to explain about Sean, and what Brad wouldn't have said in response, the things he can't say if he's going to keep pushing the 'just friends' argument. "People will think –" he starts, and Brad's frustrated groan cuts him off.

"You're not that obvious," he says. "We're not. If we were, Person would have made a lot fewer jokes about it."

Nate closes his eyes and doesn't say anything. He thinks about Sean, about Sean's ex who he's still friends with. About who Sean might tell, or she might. He thinks about the reporter's book that's coming out soon, and he thinks that the people he sees every day aren't stupid and aren't isolated.

And he thinks about Brad, how much it hurt to say goodbye and let go. How much worse it would be not to have to any longer.

What he'd give for things to be different, when what he'd give is everything that matters to him, and Brad still cares for the girl who ran off with his best friend, so if Nate would give everything, Brad would probably give more. It used to be Nate's job to protect them, in part, though it ended up being his job in way more than part, and he's starting to think that isn't ever going to go away.

"Nate? You still there?"

"I'll meet you," he says, before he can stop himself. "At Mike's, I'll meet you."

"As friends?" Brad asks, more mocking than curious.

"I don't know," Nate says honestly. "We'll figure it out when we get there."


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