|Dira Sudis (dira) wrote,|
@ 2012-07-05 07:49 am UTC
|Entry tags:||fic post, generation kill|
Gentlepersons, I have no such failure of imagination tonight. (This morning. Whatever.)
With many, many thanks to iulia, petra, and everyone else who's listened to this story over the last several months, and especially to lakeeffectgirl, oliviacirce, templemarker, and frostfire for beta. All remaining mistakes, and all new ones I've introduced since last they saw it, are of course mine.
Title is from the Decemberists song "Dear Avery".
Nate/Brad, babyfic. PTSD. Explicit. 62,000 words.
Nate looked exactly like Brad always pictured him: exhausted in the full life-in-a-combat-zone sense of the word.
Read it here, at the AO3 or at my site
(Fic is all complete, the second-half post is just set not to show on reading pages.)
Don't You Shake Alone
Brad wasn't anticipating anything, because no battle plan survived first contact with the enemy. Still, in the silent seconds after he knocked on the door, he remembered what Ray had said. There had been a few seconds of silence just like this after Brad explained that he had a long layover at BWI and asked if Ray had Nate's current address in DC, and then Ray had said, "You know what, fine. You should get this over with."
Brad hadn't asked what he meant by that; there was no need to give Ray more of an opening for mockery than he already had. Obviously Brad hadn't been as subtle as he thought he'd been. But the fact was, Nate hadn't been completely subtle, either.
About a week before they returned to the states, he and Nate had finally had something like a conversation about what they meant to each other. It had been more pauses and significantly omitted words than actual discussion, but they'd managed to communicate the salient points.
Yes, there was something important. It was mutual. They'd figure it out later, stateside. Nate had a girlfriend waiting for him, and though they'd never been very serious--never lived on the same coast longer than a leave or a law school break--he'd still have to be a gentleman about it. Nate was on his way out of the Corps, to boot. They'd talk when he was free. It would be safer then.
But then nothing. Nate had gone to radio silence once they were stateside, but Brad had gotten enough glimpses of his reunion with his girlfriend to realize he wasn't going to walk away from her on the spot. By the time Nate brought her to his paddle party two months later, Brad had figured out that Nate had made his choice, and he couldn't hold that against him. Nate hadn't promised him anything.
For months Brad had only heard from him through the same CC'd emails that bounced around the whole platoon. Recently there had been a few private messages about the book Nate was writing, fact-checking some things he remembered Brad saying. There had been exchanges of pleasantries, bare-bones sitreps. Nate had passed up the opportunity to make a pointed reference to the girlfriend of seven months ago, and Brad found himself wondering if that meant that in the end Nate had regretted the choice he made when he was first back from Iraq.
A couple of weeks ago, staring at another blandly friendly email, it had occurred to Brad that there was one thing Nate had promised him: they had agreed to talk about this. Brad figured his first long leave from the Royal Marines was as good a time as any to call in that debt. He would look Nate in the eye, hear his explanation, and by the time he got back on the plane Brad would know what was going on, whether Nate told him the entire truth or not. The loose end would be properly secured and Brad would be squared away.
Ray's voice was still echoing in his head--get this over with--when Brad heard faint sounds of movement on the other side of the door. He made sure he was at a non-threatening and recognizable distance from the peephole in the door, smiling slightly, and waited.
There was a rattle of security chain, a thud of locks being opened, and the door swung inward.
Brad observed several things in the same sweeping glance, and first, last, layered over all of them, was the fact that seeing Nate for the first time in seven months made his heart thump almost painfully against his ribs. He'd thought that he was misremembering the intensity of that want, but it had been lying in wait all along, a mine in his chest waiting to be triggered.
There was no time to think anything about that, because after seven months, there was a lot to take in about Nate.
Nate looked exactly like Brad always pictured him: exhausted in the full life-in-a-combat-zone sense of the word, used up and without hope of resupply. He was red-eyed and underweight.
He'd let his hair grow out, though, and he was wearing a Dartmouth t-shirt. His appearance screamed civilian, but despite his departure from the grooming standard he looked basically neat and clean.
He didn't look at all surprised to see Brad. He looked curious, like he didn't know what Brad was going to say--which was fair, because Brad didn't either--but not surprised to see him standing there.
There was a baby tucked into Nate's left arm: dressed in blue so probably male, small enough to have his head at Nate's elbow and his butt in Nate's palm, young enough that his legs were still folded up in the fetal position. Most of Bravo Two's welcome-home-from-OIF babies had been born within the last two weeks--Brad's checked luggage contained four identical Paddington Bears for the ones he'd known about--so that made sense.
Nate's left hand, cupped around the baby's bottom, did not bear a wedding ring or any sign that Nate had ever regularly worn one.
Nate was wearing his combat boots under his ragged jeans, indoors, when neither he nor the baby were dressed to go out into the March chill anytime soon.
Ray had hesitated to give Brad this address and then said get it over with. Ray knew. Ray knew Brad didn't know. Ray had deliberately cooperated in keeping this a secret from Brad; Nate had also deliberately omitted it within the last two weeks. This wasn't casual secret-keeping. This was the real deal. That meant a bunch of things that Brad couldn't stop to parse, because now Nate had answered the door with the baby and showed no sign of being aware that he'd been caught out, and no surprise at seeing Brad standing an ocean away from his last known location.
He looked, in fact, exactly like Brad had just walked up to him from the wrong side of the Humvees and Nate couldn't figure out how he'd gotten over there unseen.
"Brad, what are you doing here?"
Brad mustered up a casual smile, nodded slightly toward the baby, and said, "Thought you could use a little backup, sir. I was in town, figured I'd come by and see if I couldn't take a watch for you."
Nate grinned with a definite edge of sleep-deprived derangement as he glanced down at the baby and then back to Brad. He ran his free hand over his hair--it was long enough that it had gone a little curly--and he said, "I'm going to have to take you up on that, Staff Sergeant. I can't remember the last time I slept more than a few minutes."
Brad forced himself to keep smiling even as his stomach dropped. That answer was nothing but red flags, and there was nothing he could do but respond in kind and hope things weren't as bad as they sounded.
"I've heard the first few weeks are like that, sir."
Nate looked down at the baby again, the grin easing into a smile. "Ten days today. My mom says once you get to three weeks it's not so bad."
Brad mentally marked off the rest of his fortnight's leave. His mom and Ray and the Bravo Two babymamas would either understand or he would disown every last one of them. They'd let Nate get into this state in the first place, and left him alone like this with an infant.
"Want to show me the AO, sir?"
"Of course," Nate said, taking a backward step. "Come on in."
The apartment was meticulously neat. There was a box of baby wipes on the coffee table with a white cloth folded on top, next to a notebook with a pen tucked between the pages. The package of diapers was on the floor between the table and the couch. The television was on, playing CNN on mute; the blaring headline at the moment was about the crowds in the streets of Madrid, and the image switched under Brad's glance from the near-riots to images of the bombed trains. The crawl said something about the Democratic primaries.
In the furthest corner of the room, facing the TV and the door, there was a small desk set up with a laptop open on it, a stack of papers and a travel mug beside it. There was another neatly squared stack of folded white cloths there, a small empty baby bottle and a pacifier balanced on top.
"Stow your gear wherever," Nate said, waving toward the living room, away from the coat closet beside the door. Brad obediently swung the backpack off his shoulder and set it on the floor by the armchair that stood perpendicular to the couch. Nate darted past him to collect the empty bottle from the coffee table.
"Kitchen's over here," Nate said, and Brad followed him in through an archway. There was a little more evidence of occupation by a newborn here: a baby swing took up the place that should have belonged to a second chair by the kitchen table. A sheet of paper stuck to the cupboard above the microwave had a bunch of numbers crossed out and 68 SECS ON MED circled, with the words HEAT, SHAKE, TEST in block capitals at the bottom of the page. A row of empty bottles were aligned neatly on top of the microwave, each with a top set in front of it. There was a half pot of coffee keeping warm beside the microwave.
"Formula and coffee are in that cupboard, and there's formula already mixed in the fridge." Nate braced the bottle between his hip and the counter so he could unscrew the top one-handed.
"Feeding and changing schedule's in the logbook on the coffee table. Spit rags are everywhere, use whatever you want." Nate set the bottle components in the sink and opened the dishwasher, then put each in its place among other identical bottles and tops. "Baby puke cleans up pretty easy anyway. He had a major shit blowout a few hours ago, so there probably won't be another one today."
Nate smiled a little and knocked on a wooden cupboard door as he said it, then turned on his heel and led Brad out of the kitchen to the hallway. Nate's bedroom door stood open. The double bed was neatly made, and a little portable crib was set up directly beside it, on the far side from the door. The bathroom door also stood open; there was a baby seat on the counter beside the sink, between it and the toilet. Skilled as he obviously was in managing with one hand free, sometimes Nate would want both.
The baby's bedroom door was closed, and Brad braced involuntarily for what might be inside, but it was a typical nursery. It was decorated in neutral light yellow and green; they hadn't known in advance whether it was a boy or girl, then. The crib was half-full of stuffed toys, which meant that the baby never slept there. The changing table was stacked with clean baby clothes and more folded white cloths, so it was likewise never used.
The top of the dresser held both halves of a baby monitor--Nate clearly did not trust to radios of any kind to keep tabs on his son--and several framed photos: Nate and his parents and sisters, older people Brad didn't recognize, a couple of Bravo Two photos. Exactly one picture--a solo portrait--showed the woman Brad had seen seven months ago at Nate's paddle party, when she'd stuck to drinking 7-Up and Nate had stumbled out the door after Brad when he left.
Nate had grabbed his shoulder and said, "Brad, I just--I want you to know how important you are to me. As a team leader and a--a--" and before Nate finished that sentence Nate's girlfriend had stepped out the door.
Brad had broken Nate's grip, nodded crisply, and turned away.
Now Nate said, "He'll sleep anywhere, so I don't bother putting him in his crib. It's good for him to be flexible."
"Marines make do," Brad agreed.
"Yeah, that's my boy," Nate said, and he casually swung the baby out of his flexed arm, up to his shoulder. The baby stayed perfectly inert. "Semper Gumby, at least so far."
Brad smiled for the non-joke. Cautiously, offering his hands without reaching too close to the baby, he said, "Why don't you let me take him, sir? You should try to sleep."
Nate just nodded easily. "You're right, yeah. Here, you know how this works, don't you?"
Nate was already stepping in, flipping the baby down from his shoulder and into Brad's left arm with that bizarre careless-looking ease parents had with their tiny infants. This was real, beyond the possibility of a joke or a delusion or any other easier explanation. Nate--the LT, the guy Brad had been hung up on for the better part of a year--Nate was a dad.
Nate looked up questioningly at Brad as he let go of the baby and stepped back. He'd asked a question.
Brad said confidently, "Support head and neck, diaper the end shit comes out of, bottle goes in the end that cries."
Nate's smile widened. "Yeah, that covers it. I'll wake up if he cries, but he should sleep another hour or so. Thanks, Brad, you're a lifesaver."
Brad kept his arm perfectly steady under the warm, dense weight, and pivoted on his heel to clear Nate's path to the door. Nate preceded him, turning aside to go into his own bedroom. He turned back in the doorway, and Brad took the liberty of reaching out his free hand to touch Nate's shoulder, giving him a gentle push.
"I've got this, sir."
"No, I know you do," Nate said. He looked suddenly utterly serious in a way that didn't fit their quiet and pristine surroundings. Brad automatically stood a little straighter under the weight he carried, feeling the same old tangle of furtive eagerness to impress Nate.
"Sergeant, if anything happens, I trust you to handle it. Don't worry about me, just take Linus and go. He's all that matters now. Everything's in the front closet. You can be Oscar Mike in ten seconds. Understood?"
"Solid copy, sir," Brad said, keeping his face absolutely blank thanks to years of practice. The baby--Linus?--weighed just about as much as his M4. Brad felt naked without his Kevlar.
Nate gave a sharp nod and turned away, walking to the bed and collapsing onto it--on top of the covers, boots still laced up--without a backward glance. Brad stayed in the doorway, watching to be sure Nate was still breathing, and then looked down at the baby.
Linus Fick had round pink cheeks and a tiny round nose, fine blond eyelashes and tiny translucent eyebrows and an almost invisible cap of blond hair. Ten little fingers balled into tiny fists, feet covered in clean white socks. His pale blue onesie had a duck on the chest, and white plastic diaper-edges showed at the leg holes. His fast, deep breaths pressed against Brad's chest. Brad laid a hand carefully over the round of his stomach and felt it rise and fall under his palm, felt the fragile rigidity of his miniature ribcage.
How far gone is your daddy, little man?
Brad took another glance at Nate. He was lying motionless on his side, knees drawn up slightly. His t-shirt had ridden up, exposing a wedge of pale skin above his jeans, the lowest bumps of his spine visible. His arms were folded in front of his chest like he was cradling... not a rifle, not anymore.
Brad reached out with his free hand and quietly closed the door. He stayed still for a count of sixty after he'd done that, but Nate didn't make a sound from the other side and Linus stayed asleep. Brad turned away, returning to the living room. He confirmed with a glance that Nate had indeed relocked and chained the door after Brad stepped inside, and then walked over to the desk to find the TV remote. Sure enough it was there, on the far side of the laptop.
The file on screen was all text, widely spaced, impossible not to read at a glance. In the two weeks since Brad last had an email from him--since Linus had been born--Nate's book had gotten up to the firefight in Nasiriyah. The top page on the stack beside the computer was a sketched map of their route.
Brad looked up, and the picture on the TV was of the Afghan hills. He gritted his teeth and changed the channel until he found ESPN. They were talking about hockey, which as far as Brad knew Nate had never given a fuck about. He turned the volume on at the very lowest setting, just a barely-audible murmur of broadcasters' bright, smooth voices talking about nothing important.
"All right, little man," Brad said, not whispering, but keeping his voice nearly as low as the TV. "So your daddy's head is back in Iraq, which leaves two questions. Where's your mom, and what's in the closet?"
And what the hell am I going to do if those turn out to be the same question? But the horror-movie worst case scenario was actually easy to strategize. If Nate was that far gone, Brad would take Linus and retreat at speed to the nice crowded Starbucks down the street. He would call 911, then Ray, then Nate's parents, whose number Ray would be able to supply. Nate would understand; hell, Nate would agree, once he was in his right mind again. He'd said it himself. Keeping Linus safe was the only thing that mattered.
Brad still hesitated for a second, trying to figure out the best case scenario. It took longer, but he got there. There might be a stroller and a diaper bag in the closet, so that Brad could take Linus along to run an errand if he needed to. And Linus's mother might be....
Brad couldn't pin down what constituted a best case scenario for Linus's mother beyond not dead when she was so obviously not here, but he couldn't just stand there in the middle of the room anymore. Brad shifted Linus up onto his shoulder--moving carefully and slowly, but at least without being compelled to sit down and lay the baby in his lap to get him there. When Linus was balanced on his chest, Brad went over to the closet, turned sideways so that his body was between Linus and the door, and pulled it open.
He saw coats, first--all masculine, all roughly Nate's size--and then he saw the collapsed stroller, a lightweight three-wheeled thing. Brad spent a blissful half-second thinking he'd been completely off base, until he saw the fully-loaded pack on the floor next to the stroller, slightly camouflaged by the coats.
It wasn't camouflaged in any other way; it was a civilian hiking pack in bright red and gray, and most of the gray was covered with stripes of reflective tape. It was positioned with the straps out, and when Brad reached for it he discovered that he could in fact sling it up onto his shoulder, turn, and head for the door all in one motion. Oscar Mike in less than ten seconds.
Brad carried the pack over to the couch, lowering it to the cushions as he sat. He laid Linus in his lap, pulled off his sweatshirt and dropped it on the cushion beside him, then moved Linus onto the shirt, wrapping it around him like a blanket and tucking the whole baby-package against his own thigh. Linus should be too little to fling himself off the couch, and being wrapped up tight would slow him down enough for Brad to catch him if he did move, as well as helping to keep him warm while no one was holding him.
With both hands free and his lap clear, Brad opened the top of the pack. The first thing he pulled out was a folded mess of straps that resolved, when shaken out, into a baby backpack--so if he'd taken off without stopping to unfold the stroller, he could carry Linus on his chest and still have both hands free.
Under the baby backpack was a loaded sidearm. It was a 9mm, cop style. It was probably completely legal and unremarkable; Brad somehow doubted Nate had toted his newborn to a gun shop to buy it anytime in the last ten days. He seemed dug-in to Brad, hunkered down inside his existing perimeter. But he wasn't keeping the gun on his hip or in the bedside drawer or in a gun safe--he was keeping it packed, in case something happened. He wasn't planning on making any kind of stand. He was ready to run.
Brad looked down at Linus--swaddled in Brad's PT gear, fast asleep and months away from being able to even crawl somewhere he shouldn't, probably years away from being able to open the closet door by himself--and then set the gun down carefully on the opposite side of his body, resting heavily against his other leg.
The next thing down was a Ziploc with two empty baby bottles inside. Under that was a whole series of Ziplocs, each one filled with little tubs like the guacamole in a takeout bag. Each tub was full of off-white powder, and each bag also held a half-dozen iodine tablets, for purifying water. Homemade baby MREs, in packs of twelve. If the baby ate every two hours, each bag represented a day's meals, and Nate could feed Linus out of this pack, without resupply or a reliable source of clean water, for a week.
Brad rested his hand on Linus again--his shape was muffled by Brad's sweatshirt, but Brad could still feel him breathing--as he remembered the last baby he'd held before this one. She'd been shoved into his hands at the roadblock outside Al Kut. That baby had been older--she'd held her own head up, and he'd seen her teeth as she cried. She hadn't seemed much heavier, struggling weakly as her mother tried to tell him what was wrong and he tried to insist he couldn't do anything for a sick baby. Doc had said a quarter of those babies were going to die; he'd said that to the LT. They'd all known that number by the time they broke down the roadblock and took off. Brad would bet dollars to dinars that Nate had never stopped thinking about that since he first held Linus--hell, maybe since he first held Christeson's baby girl, two months ago.
Brad had to mentally edit that in: in those pictures he'd seen of Nate holding an impossibly tiny baby, standing in for her daddy who was off in Fallujah, Nate had had a girlfriend who was seven months pregnant. That could have been his own kid he was holding if their luck had been a little different.
And now Nate was ready to retreat hundreds of miles on foot to safety with his child in his arms.
Brad closed his eyes, thinking of the men he'd seen coming through the roadblock, or on the streets in Baghdad. Some holding a kid by the hand, or carrying toddlers, yeah. All of them conspicuously dressed as civilians. Brad remembered noting them using their clothing and kids as shields; he'd never thought about them as frightened fathers trying to get their children to safety, only as potential enemies.
Brad opened his eyes again and ran a hand down a line of reflective tape on the backpack, remembering Nate's unsat haircut and his Dartmouth t-shirt. Camouflage indeed. Nate wanted to look like a harmless civilian when the time came. He had to, with a baby in his arms; he wouldn't dare be--or be mistaken for--a combatant.
Somebody was going to spot his boots, though. They'd spot his boots and then they'd take his baby from his arms and zip-tie him. Maybe they'd just shoot him, if he looked at them funny or they found the gun or something startled them; maybe they'd fucking bayonet him, if they had a Captain America running around. Maybe they wouldn't even bother to take the baby away first....
Brad closed his eyes, pinching the bridge of his nose. No one was going to do any of that. Nate and Linus were in DC, not Baghdad. Brad could not start buying into Nate's paranoid delusions, no matter how well he understood them.
The boots were a mistake, though. The only mistake Brad had spotted Nate making so far, except for forgetting Brad didn't know about Linus. That one could be forgiven. Nate trusted Brad. He knew he could get away with being a little sloppy with his TL.
Brad dropped his hand and reached for the TV remote, turning the volume up one careful click. He still couldn't quite make out words, but he could distinguish separate voices, now. Linus didn't seem to notice, and there was no sound from Nate's bedroom. Brad resisted the temptation to go and check on Nate.
Instead, he went back to rifling through the pack. There was a zippered pocket near the top, which held a hundred dollars in small denominations, a roll of quarters, and Nate's passport. It had been issued just about ten years ago, showing a teenaged kid with floppy hair and a close-mouthed smile that suggested braces. There were a few European stamps dating back to Nate's high school and college years. They were the marks of affluent family vacations; there was nothing to suggest the bearer had ever traveled to a war zone, let alone fought there.
Tucked into the passport were two sheets of paper, folded together. The first was a photocopied birth certificate from the GW hospital, baby's footprint in the corner.
Linus Ulysses Fick. Jesus Christ. Either Nate had already been markedly Not All Right ten days ago and no one had known how to rein him in, or he was an even more ridiculous Ivy League Classics nerd than any of them had ever suspected.
Brad filed away Linus's mother's name, for future searching--there couldn't be that many Corinne Earleys in the DC area--but the next page relieved him of the necessity. The photocopy had picked up the notary's seal, in the same spot on this page as the footprint on the birth certificate, overlapping the signatures. The following is a legally binding agreement regarding the custody of the minor child Linus Fick. The Linus looked like it had been filled in later--typed, not printed, slightly crooked. They'd settled this even before the baby was born. Nate had sole custody and received no financial support. They'd agreed to meet and renegotiate by the end of the year, but that meant Nate was on his own for at least the next nine months.
That, Brad concluded, had been an absolutely final breakup. Maybe it was no wonder nobody argued with Nate about what name he stuck the kid with.
Maybe it meant Brad had some kind of chance, except.... Brad looked down at Linus, as enormous in his implications as he was tiny in form. Except Brad had just dropped into terrain he was entirely unprepared for. Still, there was nothing to do but keep moving.
Brad folded the papers up and put all of that away, and dug quickly through the rest of the pack. There were cloth diapers with safety pins, foil blankets and a poncho in plastic packs, a soft blue baby blanket, a few changes of baby clothes, a first aid kit, a package of pacifiers, a tiny plush duck, clean socks and underwear for Nate, a box of ammunition....
Brad packed it all away exactly as it had been, right up to the sidearm and the baby backpack, and gathered Linus up to carry along as he took the pack to stow again in the closet. On his way back to the couch, Brad grabbed his own much smaller backpack.
He lay down flat on the couch, so he could rest Linus on his chest, unwrapping the sweatshirt from around the baby and tucking it under his own head. Linus smacked his lips, waved one fist, his eyes fluttering half-open, and he made a tiny noise, not a cry but a sort of unhappy baby mumble. Brad put both hands on Linus's back--nearly covering his entire body--and made little instinctive shushing noises, and the baby settled down again.
Brad stared at him. He had a faint, uneasy, wait, what just happened? feeling that didn't make any sense. Nothing had just happened. The baby hadn't cried.
Brad shook his head and reached into his backpack, pulling out his phone. He watched it power on, watched it find the signal, watched a string of text messages arrive.
Ray: I was sworn to secrecy! Give Linus a big kiss from Uncle Ray-Ray.
Mom: Welcome back to the States! Send me a text when you're on the ground.
Ray: Why haven't you called to threaten me with death yet? Everything okay?
Ray: If everything is so okay that you're too busy to call me, you'd better not be doing it in front of the baby.
"First of all." Brad curled down to kiss the top of Linus's head. "We are never leaving you alone with Uncle Ray-Ray once you're old enough to repeat things he says."
Secondly, he texted his mom. Down safely, visiting a friend in DC. Going to miss my flight to San Diego.
Thirdly, he called Ray. Before Ray could say a word, Brad said quietly, "You fucked up here, Ray."
He could picture Ray's excited look falling away. Brad reached over and turned up the TV by another click, then resettled his hand on Linus's back before he could move.
Ray was all business, slightly worried, as he said, "What happened?"
"Nate is...." Brad trailed off, trying to work out how much he was willing to say about the way Nate just wasn't there, the way he went down like he was dead.
"Look, you don't have to be delicate," Ray blurted. "By the time he'd spent three days sleeping on my couch after a drunken screaming fight on the phone with his babymama, my illusions about the LT were pretty much shattered."
So the breakup had either started or finished around the time Nate had gone out to St. Louis to see Christeson's baby girl. He and Ray had met up there; it would have been easy enough for Nate to go back to KC for a few days with Ray if he wasn't hurrying home. He'd dropped everything to fly out to St. Louis to see someone else's baby getting born; it wasn't like Linus's mom hadn't had a point. Brad would have done the same for any of them, though. That wasn't a fight with Nate that anyone could ever have won.
"Been waiting to tell me that for a while, huh," Brad observed.
"Jesus, you have no idea, it's been killing me."
"Glad as I am that you could finally get that off your chest," Brad said softly, sliding his hand up and down Linus's back, "the point is, Nate is not...."
Brad looked around the spotless apartment, looked down at the safe, healthy, sleeping baby, and wondered what the hell he could say.
"Shit," Ray muttered. "I thought the emails were getting kind of Stepford."
Brad sighed. "He hasn't been sleeping. He's ready to fucking evac under fire. I got here and he didn't remember that I wasn't supposed to know about the kid."
"Fuck," Ray said again. "Brad, I fucking swear, if there had been one single sign that he couldn't take care of Linus--his mom's been checking on him every day, I was sure she would catch it before I did if something was up. She's his mom, what kind of fucking freak can lie to his mom for shit? And she'd definitely have noticed if Linus wasn't okay."
Brad closed his eyes. "I know. Linus is fine. Taking care of the baby is the one thing Nate is doing."
"Like... right now? Is he sitting next to you clutching the kid like he's his precious?"
Brad winced, but it was too late; he was never going to get rid of that mental image. "He's sleeping, Ray. You were a few steps down the triage list from making sure he didn't suffer an actual psychotic break."
"Okay, so, bright side, he's not actually psychotic," Ray said. "Is he stockpiling weapons?"
There was something comforting about knowing that Ray was running through roughly the same mental checklist as Brad.
"Just one sidearm that I've seen so far, but he's keeping it in his go bag."
"Huh." Brad knew Ray was thinking what he was thinking: that was a good sign, as far as it went, but Brad hadn't checked anything like all of the apartment, and he had no way of knowing what Nate had stashed somewhere for ready use.
Brad sighed again, and Ray muttered, "Yeah."
"Do me a favor?" Brad said. "Could you call the airline and try to stop them from sending my luggage to San Diego without me?"
There was a short silence and then Ray said, "Bradley Colbert, did you just give me permission to impersonate you while interacting with innocent civilians?"
Brad smiled. "Just this one time, Ray, for the purposes of rescuing my clothing and toiletries from their clutches."
"Well," Ray said, "as you should have realized by now, it only takes once."
Ray hung up before Brad could spit out an answer to that, which was probably for the best.
Brad checked that his phone was silenced and then set it down on the coffee table, picking up the remote to turn up the TV one more click. The voices were intelligible now--they were talking about baseball, another sport Nate had never shown any interest in--but easily ignorable. Brad steadied Linus against his chest with one hand and rolled half onto his side to reach the notebook with the other.
Nate's logbook. Brad settled back and cautiously took both hands off Linus, using them to hold the notebook overhead so he could read it. The pen marked the most recent entries. The last had been written--Brad checked his watch--about fifteen minutes before Brad had arrived. 1406: bottle, finished 2oz, belched audibly. Asleep in arms 1425-
Brad propped the notebook against the back of the couch and wrote neatly on the lines beneath, 1440: B arrived. N asleep on bed 1445-
Skimming backward, Brad could see that Linus did in fact eat roughly every two hours, and required diaper changes about as often. Brad stared thoughtfully for a moment at 0750: shit explosion. Both showered. and then searched out the pattern. As Nate had said, catastrophic shit requiring a shower had occurred on each of the last three days, though at varying intervals.
More regular were the uninformative notations that read Mom here and a span of time, two to three hours at some point during the morning or afternoon each day, all the way back to the beginning of the logbook eight days ago. She'd shown up shortly after the shit explosion this morning, and nothing else was noted until after her departure, close to noon.
That wasn't just checking in; that was, in fact, someone taking a watch to relieve Nate. His mom had to be trying to give him a chance to get some sleep, but Brad would swear on his life that Nate hadn't gotten any sleep worth mentioning in at least the last two or three days. Brad knew how that looked on him; he was pretty far gone into serious sleep deprivation. Even if Nate had never seen combat he'd be out of his mind right now.
And yet--if he was just hanging around with his mom and Linus, he'd have kept track of what Linus was doing in the logbook. Even if he felt weird about documenting everything the baby did in front of his mom, he could have remembered it to write down after his mom was gone. That meant that Nate wasn't with Linus and his mom when she was around, which circled back around to the fact that Nate ought to have been spending that time sleeping; the only way Brad could see it going was that Nate was pretending to sleep, to give his mom the impression that he was all right.
The emails were getting kind of Stepford, Ray had said. Brad checked his watch. They were coming up on thirty minutes now since Nate had fallen limply onto his bed. That was a good start, if Nate was actually sleeping. Brad wouldn't have questioned it--wouldn't have thought Nate could fool him--but evidently he'd been fooling his mom and Ray.
Brad looked down at Linus--definitely asleep, though as Brad watched he squirmed around and yawned. Brad squeezed him a little closer, and Linus settled down again. No matter how long Brad watched the baby sleeping peacefully, he couldn’t banish the image of Nate lying awake in his bed, waiting for two or three hours to tick by. And if Nate's mental state this morning had been anything like it was when Brad showed up--if he'd thought he was leaving his mother and son alone and unprotected in a potential combat zone....
"Time to do some recon, little man," Brad whispered. He sat up and eyed the television, considering turning it up a little louder to cover the small sounds he would inevitably make. The TV took care of that by getting suddenly louder as the sports news broke for low-production-value local commercials. Brad stood up, wasting no time in this window of cover, and walked silently to the bedroom door. He eased it open, letting the sound of the TV filter in gradually, and then slipped inside and pushed it nearly shut behind him.
Nate was lying exactly as Brad had last seen him, curled on his side with his booted feet hanging off the edge of the bed. Only now did Brad see another significance in the fact that Nate had put his back to the door.
He paced carefully across the ground he hadn't covered before, lowering each foot gingerly in case the floorboards creaked. He made it to the far side of the bed without making a sound and without Nate moving or reacting to his presence. By then he was reasonably certain that Nate really was asleep, but Brad still crouched down by the foot of the portable crib to look across the bed at Nate's face.
He'd gone absolutely slack, emptied out by his loss of consciousness in a way that made Brad want to wake him just so he wouldn't be so far away. Brad wouldn't, of course, and he probably wouldn't really get Nate all the way back if he did; he'd been halfway to gone from the minute he opened the front door. Brad held his position and watched Nate sleeping. Linus, secure in Brad's arms, took two breaths for every one Brad could see Nate taking.
Brad remembered to breathe himself, but his chest ached with the obviously futile urge to protect Nate. It had never been an impulse he could indulge--it wasn't his place, and Nate's life was his own to risk, his duty his own to pursue--and he couldn't do a hell of a lot about it now. He could maybe help Nate get a few hours of sleep, he could look after Nate's kid, hold him and keep him quiet and safe, but he couldn't get to the Iraq in Nate's head and bring him back. He couldn't fix this. He could only keep watch.
Brad stayed a little longer, watching. It was a hell of a novelty to look at Nate when he wasn't looking back without involving a rifle scope. But eventually Linus started squirming, and Brad knew he had to get out before the baby made a sound to wake Nate up. Brad left without lingering, bouncing Linus a little against his chest as he walked back out to the living room. By the time he'd reached the couch Linus was quiet again.
Brad lay down and settled himself into watchful, motionless waiting for the next thing that might threaten Nate's rest. He let his eyes half-close. He listened to the TV and then tuned it out, listening for more distant sounds. The last thing they needed was a fire truck tearing down the street, but Brad hadn't heard a siren since he reached Nate's neighborhood. It was the middle of the day, and Nate's neighbors were mostly gainfully employed; the building was quiet. The traffic sounds were muted and routine, just the faint, distant growl of engines.
It was Linus who moved first. He squirmed against Brad's chest, and Brad opened his eyes fully to watch the baby stretch, splaying his arms out. He'd been lying face down on Brad's chest, legs tucked under him, but he looked uncomfortable now, his movements only succeeding in mashing his face into Brad's shirt. Brad curled up a little and tipped Linus into his arm, so he lay on his side. Linus went still at the sudden reorientation and opened his eyes, looking straight at Brad. His eyes were deeply, darkly blue, like the ocean at the place where the continental shelf dropped away. He blinked, wrinkled his nose, and seemed to study Brad as Brad looked back at him.
"Hello there," Brad said quietly, conscious that it mattered what he said, that this was the beginning of something. "Brad Colbert. I knew your dad when he was in Iraq for real."
Linus accepted this statement by closing his eyes and wriggling a bit. Brad curled his hand around Linus's bottom, and felt the unmistakable sudden heat of piss on the other side of the diaper.
Linus made a tiny, irritated noise and flailed the arm that wasn't tucked against Brad's chest.
Brad said, "Yeah, I hate that feeling."
He stood up with Linus cradled in one arm and grabbed the pacifier from the desk. He didn't have to look at his watch to know it was time for a diaper change and bottle.
The diaper change was fairly straightforward: Brad laid Linus down on the floor with the package of diapers and wipes both in easy reach, surveyed the diaper before unfastening it to make sure he could put the next one in place exactly the same, and then did so. He noted in passing that Linus wasn't circumcised, but there was no way of knowing whether that was because Nate hadn't been able to handle the idea of anyone hurting his son, or because Nate was a babies-are-born-perfect hippie type, or because Nate was a gentile and didn't see any particular need for it.
He wanted to wonder whether it was a data point in favor of Nate not being circumcised, either, but he was in no way contemplating that while changing a newborn's diaper. He got the kid cleaned off, fastened up the new diaper just like the old one--noted also that the baby's belly button was pink but nicely healed--and then tugged the onesie back into place and fastened it, with the plastic edges of the diaper sticking out the leg holes just as they'd been before.
While he was holding on to Linus's ankles, he felt something hard shift under his finger on one of them. When Linus was otherwise shipshape Brad peeled down the left sock, and found that there was a horseshoe tied with a ribbon around Linus's ankle. Nate's horseshoe. Brad had seen it once in Iraq on its grimy length of parachute cord when Nate tugged it out to fiddle with. They'd been talking at the time, not long before they finally left Iraq altogether. Nate had been avoiding his eyes, talking around what they were both trying to say. Brad had wanted to close his hand over Nate's, wanted to touch the horseshoe, wanted to touch him.
He touched the horseshoe now. It was lighter than Brad expected--not silver. Maybe aluminum. The surface wasn't polished, just a rough cast, but it was smooth enough not to catch on. It had been important to Nate--and obviously it was a sign for luck. And he hadn't kept it for himself, of course. He'd given it to Linus. Linus was the only thing that mattered to Nate now.
Brad raised his eyes from the horseshoe to Linus's face. He was sucking intently at the pacifier, frowning with infant concentration. He looked up at Brad with an expression that made Brad suddenly able to see that Linus was going to look a lot like Nate when he got past being all rounded-off edges.
I want to see what that looks like, Brad thought, so sharp and crystal clear that he just edged away from the idea rather than touch it or look at it too closely.
Linus flung out a hand, spat out the pacifier and made a little discontented sound. Brad tugged his sock back into place over the horseshoe and stuffed the pacifier back in. After waiting a second to see if Linus would spit it back out immediately--he didn't, opting instead to suck frantically at it, like this time it might give milk--Brad gathered up the baby and headed to the kitchen.
He spent a solid ten seconds trying to figure out if he could replicate Nate's one-handed bottle disassembly in reverse, and then realized that that was what the swing was for. He got
Linus settled into it, turned it on, and then moved quickly to the cupboard, figuring he had an extremely limited window before the kid freaked out. From the look of the logbook he was just about never out of Nate's arms.
He grabbed a bottle from the top of the microwave and opened the fridge. There was a mostly-full plastic jug with a piece of tape serving as a label: GOOD UNTIL 3/15 1200. Brad filled the bottle up to the top measuring line and put it into the microwave. Sixty-eight seconds on medium.
When the microwave stopped, Brad glanced at the page on the cupboard again--HEAT, SHAKE, TEST--and then screwed the bottle-top on and shook it. He tapped out a couple of drops onto his wrist, like he vaguely thought you were supposed to, and it felt lukewarm, which was probably better than too hot.
Brad gathered Linus up out of the swing and got himself settled with the baby in his left arm and the bottle in his right hand. He managed to hook the pacifier with one finger of the hand holding the bottle, and yanked it out a second before he plugged the bottle in. Linus looked outraged for a split second and then realized he'd finally gotten what he wanted. His fists waved and his eyes squeezed shut, and his whole tiny body flexed in Brad's grip as he started chowing down.
Brad carried the kid back to the couch and settled in, turning up the volume on the TV one more notch. He stared at the screen through half-open eyes, tuning out the actual words, listening to the tone of voice. It was smooth and rehearsed, but there was something about it that sounded right--sounded at its base like any two guys talking about something they really cared about because they needed to really care about something stupid, and this was the stupid thing they had picked. Baseball, J. Lo, it didn't really make any difference. It was the right kind of background noise, safe and familiar and reassuring.
When the bottle was nearly empty Brad grabbed one of the white cloths off the coffee table and tossed it over his shoulder. When Linus stopped sucking and seemed to be half asleep, Brad took the bottle away and carefully hoisted the baby upright against his shoulder. He patted the kid tentatively on the back, trying to remember any movie he'd ever seen that showed this part. Just when he was starting to wonder if maybe the kid didn't need to burp and it was just a thing people talked about that didn't actually happen in real life, Linus made a little noise, and Brad felt the heat of puke on the cloth on his shoulder, promptly running down onto his back.
Brad grimaced and leaned forward, cupping the back of Linus's head in one hand and flipping the kid down from his shoulder onto his arm for inspection. Linus waved his fists and kicked his feet, making Brad quickly lay a hand on his stomach to steady him. His mouth and chin were smeared with white, but he was otherwise clean; nearly all the puke had landed on Brad. Linus didn't seem particularly upset about having just barfed, and Brad figured the whole experience was a great improvement over having Person and Trombley puking on him during the camp plague in Iraq, especially since he had access to an actual bathroom and clean clothes now.
Brad grabbed another cloth and wiped off Linus's face, then laid the baby in his lap while he pulled his shirt off, bundling both rags inside it and using a dry part to wipe off his back. There didn't seem to be as much of it as there had been in the bottle, so he had to figure the kid had gotten most of his meal down. He gathered Linus up again, slouching on the couch to let Linus's weight rest on his chest, waiting for the kid to fall asleep again.
Brad glanced at the clock, mentally plotting the entries necessary to catch up the logbook. It occurred to him that Nate had been asleep for over ninety minutes, and no sooner had the thought crossed his mind than he heard the sudden thump of booted feet hitting the bedroom floor. Running strides, only slightly muffled by the carpet, came to a sudden halt as Nate came into view of the couch.
Brad smiled slightly as he looked up. Nate was staring at him, wide-eyed, mouth hanging open slightly. Brad could see the panic dropping away into utter incomprehension. Nate was properly gobsmacked. More to the point, he was actually there behind his eyes this time, and the sight of him still made Brad's heart thump a little harder.
"Nope," Brad said, suppressing a smile, when Nate had just stood there for a solid minute. "Not a hallucination."
Nate blinked and then smiled, normal and easy this time, as he stepped forward to brace both hands against the back of the chair. He let out a shaky laugh. "You were wearing a shirt before, though, right?"
Brad grinned and took one hand carefully off of Linus to pick up the wad of his shirt. "Got puked on a little bit after he ate. You were right, it wipes off pretty easy."
Nate winced, his gaze flickering quickly between Linus--resting quietly under Brad's right hand--and the puked-on shirt. Brad could see the muscles shifting in Nate's arms as he clenched his hands against the top of the chair and then made himself let go.
He smiled again, like he thought he might be fooling Brad, and stepped around the chair as he said, "Let me put that in the wash for you. I can take him so you can change."
"I'm fine, I've got him," Brad said, slouching deliberately lower on the couch even as he held out his dirty shirt toward Nate's extended hand. Brad was frankly impressed--and a little surprised--that Nate didn't just snatch the kid out of his arms. But if Nate wanted to pretend that he didn't need Linus in his arms to quell the panic of waking up and not knowing where he was, Brad was going to pretend right along with him. It would be interesting to see how long he lasted.
Nate nodded, still smiling, as he took the shirt from Brad's hand. Brad could see him forcing his gaze away from Linus; he stepped past Brad to pick up his crumpled sweatshirt, then turned and grabbed the empty bottle from the coffee table as well.
Brad rubbed Linus's back as Nate went into the kitchen. The baby was breathing in the same rhythm he had when he was asleep before, so Brad figured he was out. He sat up and grabbed the logbook, updating it while he listened to Nate breaking down the bottle and putting it into the dishwasher.
Nate opened a closet door--tucked into the corner past the little table, Brad recalled, out of sight of Brad where he sat. From the sounds of it that was where the washer and dryer were. Nate walked out of the kitchen, leaving the washer open with the water already running, to go get the hamper from the bathroom. He didn't break stride at the sight of Brad writing in the logbook.
Brad was finished a few seconds after Nate went back to the kitchen. He set the logbook down, pen neatly holding his place, and went to the kitchen doorway, leaning there and holding Linus against his chest with both hands. Nate glanced over at them, the expression on his face aggressively neutral, and then went back to tossing t-shirts and underwear and tiny baby clothes into the washer.
"You can borrow some clean clothes if you need to get going," Nate said. "I can mail these back to you. Do you need a ride back to the airport? I can drive you, my car's just down on the street."
Brad raised his eyebrows and waited in silence until Nate looked over at him again. "I don't know what the hell I said that made you think I was leaving anytime soon."
"You said...." Brad watched Nate realize that he couldn't parrot back anything Brad had said when Nate first opened the door without sounding crazy. He saw the instant when Nate decided to try to brazen it out. "Look, I know you didn't drop by for babysitting duty. I'm grateful to have gotten the relief, and I'm sorry we can't have the kind of visit you intended, but--well, you can see I'm busy."
Brad considered saying I came here for you, and it didn't make any difference to me how I found you. But it was too soon for that. Nate might finally be fully conscious, but he was still a long way off from having the wherewithal to deal with what Brad wanted from him, and Brad wasn't going to rush him into saying no.
Instead, Brad said, "I'll be happy to leave you to get on with taking care of Linus on your own if you can tell me without looking down what color your shoes are."
Nate frowned slightly but didn't look down and didn't hesitate before saying, "Gray."
Brad hoisted Linus slightly higher on his chest and held Nate's gaze. He watched Nate shift his weight--flexing his toes and ankles, testing the feeling of his footgear. Nate still didn't look down, but Brad saw his neutral expression harden into determined blankness.
"Do you remember putting your combat boots on?" Brad asked, and there was no way to avoid saying it gently, even though it meant Nate realizing Brad could see the broken edges he was trying to hold together.
Nate looked away, but he still stubbornly didn't look down at his feet.
"I was tired," Nate said, after Brad had watched his jaw work around a few answers he knew better than to give. "I put on the wrong shoes."
Brad shook his head. "Don't try to tell me you keep them next to your go-fasters, Nate. You dug them out of storage because you feel safer wearing them, and you don't remember doing it. I'm not here to judge you or diagnose you, but I'm not leaving you alone with a kid like this."
Nate's head snapped up, his shoulders straightened, and Brad froze. He was suddenly standing shirtless, holding a baby, unsat in every imaginable way, before the LT, and Fick was righteously furious. His voice was low--he had never wasted energy on shouting--as he said, "Who the hell do you think you are--"
And that was as far as he got before Brad flinched away from his quiet, naked rage, straightening up to a protectively perfect stance of attention. Linus, startled by the sudden motion, made a noise of protest.
Nate went silent so sharply it was like he'd had the wind knocked out of him. Brad petted Linus into silence even as he stared at Nate, watching Nate's mouth move soundlessly like he'd forgotten how to breathe. Nate had vulnerable points that were nowhere near his own body, now, and the two of them had teamed up to nail one, dead on target, without even trying.
As flatly as he could, without reproach or kindness, Brad said, "I'm the guy you trust with your son when you're not sure you can trust yourself. We both know that, and I'm not going to pretend I don't just to spare your fucking feelings."
Nate looked away, and this time he folded his arms across his chest, gripping his own arms tight. Brad wanted to hand him the baby, then, and knew he couldn't.
The water pouring into the washer shut off, and the sudden silence was deafening. Nate turned away and closed the lid, bringing back the sloshing of the water. He stayed there, hands braced on the washer, forehead leaning on the dryer above it, utterly still.
Brad knew better than to reach out and touch him, no matter how badly he wanted to. Instead he said, "Come here and sit down, Nate. I'll find you something to eat--you look like you've been on one meal a day."
Nate went on standing there for a few breaths--Brad could see them, deep inhalations that shifted Nate's shoulders--and then he straightened up and turned to face Brad. Nate stood just as sharply to attention as Brad ever had, and he met Brad's gaze unflinchingly.
With iron-willed humility, he said, "Thank you."
Brad tried not to wince visibly as he nodded. There was nothing to say to that. He took a step backward, clearing Nate's path, and waved toward the table again. "Come on, have a seat."
Nate nodded, deflating slightly from that steely uprightness. He stepped past Brad to the one chair by the table and slumped into it, looking every bit as exhausted as Brad knew he had to be. When he looked up, his gaze settled not on Brad's face but on Linus. This time Brad responded immediately to Nate's obvious unexpressed wish; he stepped in and lowered Linus into Nate's hands.
Nate's eyes closed with a relief that looked like pain as he settled Linus against his shoulder, and he turned his head to press his lips against Linus's hair, raining a whole series of kisses over the curve of his head. It looked compulsive--not remotely insincere, but as physically necessary as breathing. This was who Nate had become, while Brad wasn't looking, and Brad couldn't help wanting him as badly as he ever had.
After a few seconds, Brad tore his gaze away and slipped out of the kitchen on silent feet, going to his bag in the living room to fish out his in-case-of-lost-luggage clean shirt from his backpack. He flexed his arms as he went, frowning. It had only been a couple of hours, but he already felt disarmed without Linus--incomplete, unprepared. A baby and a rifle weighed the same to his arm and his brain.
Returning to the kitchen, he hesitated in the doorway. Nate was still curled tight around Linus--not kissing him now, just sitting with his forehead pressed to the top of Linus's head, arms awkwardly twisted to keep both hands on the baby when he only needed one to hold him. Brad waited, breathing silently and holding himself still so he wouldn't reach for anything that wasn't his, until Nate unwound slightly and raised his head to look straight at Brad.
Nate nodded slightly. Brad nodded back and stepped inside, going straight for the cupboards.
"There's a lot of stuff in the freezer," Nate volunteered, his voice sounding almost normal. "And some in the fridge. My mom keeps bringing food."
Brad located food--canned goods--on the third try, and grabbed a can of soup. "Unless you're making a specific request, let's go with this for now. It's faster, and I bet you don't remember the last time you ate."
"I keep losing track," Nate admitted. "I'm not on Linus's schedule, and I don't cry when I'm hungry, so sometimes I don't get fed."
Brad did not allow his hands to pause in their rummaging for a can opener and a bowl. "No need to cry now. I'll keep track."
"I'm sure you will," Nate said, and neither of them said a word after that. Brad kept his back to Nate, staring intently at the microwave as the time counted down. When he set the bowl of soup and a spoon in front of Nate he got another, much easier, "Thanks."
Brad nodded again and went back to the fridge. As he'd recalled, there was half a six-pack there--more than ten days old, he was guessing. He pulled out a bottle and set it next to the bowl.
Nate already had his mouth full; he looked from the bottle to Brad and back, then shrugged and nodded, acquiescing to Brad's unspoken argument. Nate needed to sleep, needed to relax, needed to trust Brad to be on top of things right now. And the extra calories wouldn't hurt, either.
It occurred to Brad that he hadn't eaten himself since somewhere over the Atlantic, so he got out another can of soup and heated it up. He ate leaning against the kitchen counter, holding the bowl in one hand. He was done almost as quickly as Nate was, despite Nate's head start; Brad was still accustomed to bolting his food before he could be called away from it, to say nothing of having both hands free.
Nate finished the last few swallows of his beer and set the bottle down with a hard, hollow sound. He frowned at it, blinking rapidly, and then looked up at Brad. "This feels like the first time I had a drink stateside."
"Makes sense," Brad said, and set his bowl in the sink before he stepped over to him. "Let me take Linus, you can go and lie down."
Nate nodded, and when he made no move to raise Linus up to Brad, Brad reached carefully down and took him. Nate let go easily enough, dropping his hands into his lap.
"I'll crash on the couch," Nate said as he stood up. "So I'll know where you are when I wake up."
"Okay," Brad said quietly. "We'll be right here."
Brad stayed in the kitchen as Nate walked--head down, shoulders slumped--toward the couch. Brad did the dishes one-handed, and found himself swaying slightly as he did. He paused with his hand under the faucet and looked down at Linus, curled comfortably against his shoulder. It already felt normal for him to be there, and that was even more unnerving than the profound sense of absence when Brad had put him down. There was apparently no limit to the surreal situations he would follow Nate into.
Brad ducked his head and muffled a sigh against the top of Linus's head, then went back to the dishes.
When he went came out of the kitchen, Nate was lying on the couch. He had his boots still on and his face toward the kitchen door, which also gave him a clear line of sight to the front door. His eyes were barely open, and they closed even as Brad came toward him.
Brad sat down in the chair and shifted Linus to his other shoulder. His phone was still on the coffee table, and Brad curled carefully forward to grab it. He had three new text messages.
Mom: Take good care of your friend. Call when you can.
Ray: BA thinks you're a moto asshole but they're holding your gear.
Ray: Speaking of luggage. When do I report for Fick-sitting duty?
Brad replied to Ray first--Thanks. I've got at least the next week covered.--and then sat and studied his mom's message. He knew she genuinely meant it; his mom had long since accepted the vagaries of his travel schedules, and knew not to really expect him until she actually had him in sight. It was no surprise that she'd deduced something close to the truth; she knew that he wouldn't have willingly deviated from his stated plans without a good reason.
Of course, Brad would have sent roughly the same text to his mother in the event of some bizarre best case scenario. If he'd stayed in DC with Nate to do something other than hold his baby and watch him sleep, he might have crawled out of bed around now and seen this message. He might have laughed, and told Nate that he was now under official orders to take good care of him. He might have gotten right back into bed to work on that.
Brad looked at Nate, sleeping on the couch like he was tucked into a grave. He looked down at Linus, curled warmly against his shoulder. If not for Linus... if not Linus then possibly the entire last nine months would have been different. But Nate was a dad now, and Brad couldn't hold the memory of Nate kissing his son in his head and wish that child out of existence at the same time. Not even if Linus turned out to be one more person who swooped in and took away the one Brad wanted.
"No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy," Brad murmured, and dropped a kiss on the top of Linus's head so he'd know not to take it personally.
Nate half-woke every sixty to ninety minutes. The first time he raised his head, Brad was pacing across the living room, stretching his legs while he gave Linus a bottle. Brad stopped and freed one hand enough to flash a thumbs up. Nate smiled, dropped his head back down, and was instantly limp with sleep.
The second time, Brad was--fucking naturally--in the middle of taking a shit. Linus was asleep in the baby seat on the bathroom counter. Brad heard Nate moving, and then he heard Nate call out sleepily, "Brad?"
"Right here," Brad called back, ducking his head as he grinned at the evidence that Nate remembered his presence this time.
"Roger that," Nate mumbled, and by the time Brad came out of the bathroom Nate was asleep again, curled on his side with his shirt twisted out of place.
After Nate and Linus had gone through a few more wake-and-sleeps, Brad got hungry again. He made himself dinner from the stack of meals-ready-to-reheat in the fridge, and then made the same for Nate. Brad set the food out on the coffee table, and Nate woke up a couple of minutes later, sitting up and digging in with no evidence of actual awareness.
When he finished, Nate spent a few seconds staring at the basketball game playing quietly on the TV. He was frowning slightly, like he was struggling to make sense of what he was seeing, or possibly where or when he was.
"Nate," Brad said softly.
Nate looked over, nodded, and stood. He took the two steps over to Brad, ending with his feet between Brad's, and set his hand on Brad's shoulder to brace himself as he bent down. Brad stopped breathing, watching Nate move in on him, but Nate leaned in smoothly to kiss Linus's head. His cheek brushed Brad's with a faint rasp of stubble as he straightened up.
Nate let go of Brad's shoulder and turned away all in one motion, walking around him to the head.
Brad rubbed his cheek against the softness of Linus's hair, but he could still feel the rough touch of Nate's skin against his. He leaned forward and grabbed the logbook, updating it with the times of Nate's waking and eating. The toilet flushed and the sink ran, giving Brad plenty of warning before Nate emerged. Brad watched him every step of the way, but Nate barely glanced in his direction as he returned to the couch. He dropped onto it facedown--muffling his senses, leaving his back unprotected--and didn't move again except for the rise and fall of his breathing.
Brad sat and watched him for several seconds, and then Linus squirmed against his shoulder. Brad picked up the battered paperback copy of The Odyssey he'd found tucked behind the baby seat in the bathroom and resumed quietly reading aloud.
After basketball there were late-night sports shows, which were more prone to involve yelling than their afternoon counterparts. Brad switched the channel to a nature documentary and started pacing again. After ten minutes of that he realized he was forcing himself to stay alert and on watch.
Relieving Nate didn't actually mean doing this the way Nate had been doing it; the way Nate had been doing this demonstrably wasn't sustainable or necessary. Linus would wake him when he needed something. In the meantime, Brad needed a safe place to set him down.
Brad set the remote down on the coffee table, convenient to Nate's hand, and then carried Linus into Nate's bedroom. The crib by the bed was just the right height; he barely had to lean over to lay Linus down, and he could sit on the edge of the bed with one hand on the baby while he waited to see if Linus would wake up to protest not being held.
When it seemed safe, Brad leaned down to unlace his shoes, which he set neatly beneath the end of the crib, and then shucked off his jeans and hung them from a corner of it. He got into the bed on the side nearest the crib, where he could reach right over to Linus without even sitting up.
He just had time to think Oh. That's what Nate's pillow smells like, and then he was asleep.
Brad stood on the berm with his back to the Humvees, scanning the bright blue sky. He could hear aircraft; from the scream of the engines they had to be practically on top of him, but he couldn't see a damn thing, and the sound rose and fell but never got farther away. There was no other sound but the invisible aircraft, no radio chatter at all, and that was wrong--there should have been a storm of interrogatives going back and forth.
Brad turned to look back toward the others and startled himself awake by moving. Nate was coming around the bed, and Brad recognized that Linus was crying, had been crying while Brad stood there in a dream and looked everywhere but where the trouble was. He reached for the baby, but before he'd gotten as far as sitting up, Nate was there.
He caught Brad's wrist and pushed his hand aside. "I've got him, Brad. It's my turn. Go back to sleep."
Brad lay motionless, his wrist on the edge of the crib, while Nate picked Linus up. In a softer voice, Nate said, "Hey, hey, I've got you, I'm here. Okay, buddy, we're all right now, we're okay...."
Nate was bouncing on his heels, and he took one hand off of Linus to rummage in the crib. Brad got it together enough to pull his hand back, scooting up the bed slightly to grab the spare pacifier from the night stand. He held it up and Nate smiled as he took it, his teeth and eyes shining in the light that leaked in from the TV in the other room.
Nate turned away as he got the pacifier into Linus's mouth. The crying vanished into a sudden resounding silence, and Nate was already walking out the door.
Brad stared at the clock. It was nearly five, which meant Brad had, subtracting two wake-ups, had about four hours of sleep, and Nate had had about fourteen. While he considered that, he also considered the fact that Nate had appeared entirely calm this time about having to come and find Linus. And about discovering Brad in his bed.
In the quiet of Linus not crying, Brad recognized that Nate had muted the TV--it was still on, Brad could see the play of light on the wall--and discovered that he could track Nate's progress through a diaper change by sound. Nate was still talking softly; his voice was full of sweet, comforting inflections and the unintelligible words were probably meaningless.
It was late morning in Devon, still dark in DC. Brad wasn't exactly in optimal condition after four hours of sleep, but he wasn't getting back to sleep any time soon. He was still somehow tempted to try--not just to obey Nate, but to make a show of trusting him with Linus.
Brad turned his gaze to the ceiling and listened to every move Nate made. He heard Nate carry Linus into the kitchen--his words were briefly clear as he passed the hallway, "--both need some breakfast, but you first, yeah." Brad heard the creaking of the swing and the sound of the refrigerator opening, water pouring, the microwave running. Then new sounds--a canister, the tap, a clatter of glass.
Brad figured out coffee a second before he heard the first gurgle-hiss of it brewing. He listened while Nate gathered Linus up out of the swing and gave him his bottle. He closed his eyes and visualized. With only one hand free at best, Nate would have to wait for the coffee to finish brewing before he could pour himself a cup. By the time Brad heard the telltale sounds--mug, liquid pouring--the smell of coffee had gotten to him, and he knew he wasn't going back to sleep.
He heard Nate set down a second mug and gave up on pretending.
Nate set down the sugar beside Brad's coffee just as Brad reached the kitchen. Nate's smooth motion was arrested for less than a second, his gaze sweeping over Brad, and Brad tried not to betray that he'd noticed Nate noticing. Brad's jeans were still hanging over the corner of the crib in the bedroom; Nate was still fully clothed, down to his boots. Nate nodded toward the coffee and turned back to the counter for his own, and Brad sat down and drank, studying Nate.
He'd managed to prop Linus's bottle against his chest and now stood slouched against the counter, probably at the precise optimal angle to keep Linus and the bottle correctly balanced while he drank coffee left-handed. Nate's gaze had settled on the pile of clean laundry occupying half of the kitchen table.
When the load Nate had put in finished, Brad had put his own clothes into his pack, and had been perfectly capable of figuring out where Linus's clothes went. He'd folded Nate's stuff, but drew the line at putting it away. It wasn't that he didn't know where it went. He'd finally done a proper sweep for weapons, which had both reassured him (Nate wasn't stockpiling firearms, and in fact had nothing readier to hand than the sidearm in the go-bag) and given him a thorough working knowledge of the contents of every single drawer in the apartment.
He wasn't going to tell Nate that, not in words and not by putting Nate's underwear away while he was tossing the place. He sat quietly and sipped his coffee and watched Nate looking at the laundry, wondering how much Nate could deduce from the way Brad had folded his t-shirts.
"Speaking of laundry," Brad said quietly, and Nate's gaze shifted to him calmly. He really did look a hell of a lot better now that he'd had some sleep. "My clean clothes are being held at a baggage claim office at BWI. Is that ride to the airport still an option if I'm not leaving?"
Nate's face went blank again--at the reference to his attempt to get rid of Brad or at the idea of leaving the apartment or both. Brad waited.
"Of course," Nate said after a brief pause, without trying to smile. "Now?"
"No rush," Brad said, restraining the impulse to glance at the clock. "And I doubt anybody's in the office there now."
Nate nodded as if he'd expected no other answer. He finished his coffee and then said, "We usually go for a run around dawn."
Matching Nate's calm air of unquestionability, Brad said, "I'll come with you."
Nate smiled slightly and straightened up, using his left hand to reposition Linus's bottle. "You hold him, then. I'll put that stuff away and make some breakfast."
An hour later they were on the street in front of Nate's apartment. Linus was in the stroller, mostly asleep. Nate was in PT gear including those gray go-fasters he'd meant to be wearing the day before. Brad had on the only clothes he had with him, a t-shirt and the same comfortable jeans he'd worn on the plane. Not ideal, but better than running in a MOPP suit. The sun wasn't up yet, but it was nearly fully light out, the sky clear and cloudless, a few last stars fading to the west.
Nate led off in that direction, setting a moderate pace and pushing the stroller. Brad took up a station at Nate's shoulder and watched the way Nate watched their surroundings as well as keeping an eye out himself.
By the end of the first block he knew that Nate wasn't nearly as calm as he could--now that he'd had some sleep--mostly pretend to be. It was a question of tempo. At running speed, it was easy to survey their surroundings for potential sniper positions, available cover, the occasional car or other pedestrian. The street was quiet. As irregular as the buildings were on this residential street, they also ought to be as familiar to Nate as Oceanside had ever been. But Nate's eyes never stopped moving; he watched cars all the way down the block, kept checking the position of other foot-mobiles, kept scanning the rooflines after he'd already checked them. The only direction he didn't look was toward Brad.
It was eight blocks after that--eight blocks consisting entirely of turns along the grid that always carried them north and west--before Brad realized that Nate was surveying escape routes. He had to familiarize himself with every alternate path, not only visually but physically. He had to know, specifically, where he'd be able to run with Linus in a stroller. He probably carried the pack, too, when he was alone. It would make a much better test.
They crossed Rock Creek, and once again Brad caught himself thinking in Nate's terms. This made perfect sense: bridges were natural chokepoints and Nate was going to have to know all of them.
He'd managed to shake it off by the time they got halfway around the zoo, and nudged Nate a little to distract him from suspiciously eyeing the trees. "Always kind of pictured you doing laps around the Reflecting Pool. You ever run down there?"
Nate shook his head. "Too much traffic."
Brad nodded. Wrong direction, Nate meant--there was no contingency that would require Nate to evac toward all the high-value targets downtown. Of course, if he was this bad in the comparative quiet of northwest DC Brad didn't doubt that he'd find the traffic in tourist country overwhelming.
After looping around the zoo they headed back, maybe out of deference to Brad's suboptimal gear, maybe because Linus was going to be due to wake up again by the time they got home. They didn't speak any more, not until they were at the end of Nate's street and Nate stopped short.
"Brad," Nate said slowly, like he knew what the answer was going to be and didn't want to get to it any faster than he had to. "Did I call my mom last night and tell her you were visiting, so she didn't need to come by today?"
"Not before I went to bed," Brad said diplomatically. "At midnight."
Nate rubbed his face with one hand. Half muffled by his fingers, Nate said, "That conversation would have gone differently after midnight."
Differently than Nate had dreamed it, Brad concluded, and been reasonably certain it happened. But Nate wasn't going to say that, and Brad wasn't going to push it. Brad also wasn't going to leave him alone with Linus anytime soon.
"So my mom's here," Nate said briskly, dropping his hand to his side and squaring his shoulders. "Early, because I forgot to call last night. You don't have to...."
"I am cleared for civilian contact," Brad promised. "I mean, as long as she's not going to be offended by the smell."
"She's been changing Linus's diapers for ten days," Nate said, getting into motion, and added lightly, "if you can come up with a way to make her leave and not want to come back, you're one up on me."
"I'll do my best," Brad promised, and Nate looked at him for the first time since he'd spotted his mom's car, his gaze sharp and searching. Brad looked back steadily, and Nate dropped his eyes first.
They stopped on the sidewalk outside Nate's building--Brad followed Nate's gaze to the sedan with Maryland plates that had tipped him off from a block away--and Nate said, again lightly, "Why don't you take Linus, I'll deal with the stroller."
Brad was confident that he could break down the stroller as efficiently as Nate could, but he wasn't going to make Nate repeat that request, especially given what Nate had just revealed about his own reliability. Brad picked Linus up and cuddled the sleeping baby against his shoulder while
Nate collapsed the stroller with a few sharp motions. His hands betrayed the tension his voice mostly concealed. He preceded Brad inside, trotting up the stairs ahead of him.
He looked back once, and when Brad smiled encouragingly, Nate smiled back like it was easy. Brad tightened his grip on Linus and was suddenly thankful that Nate hadn't had it together enough to try to fool him to start with. Brad held on to his own smile, conscious he was about to be on display, and kept both hands innocuously occupied holding Linus.
Nate opened the door and maneuvered the collapsed stroller through it. "Hey, Mom, we went out for a run."
"I figured," a woman called back as Brad stepped inside on Nate's heels, and she stopped short in the kitchen doorway as she caught sight of him. Her face went fascinatingly, almost professionally blank, and Brad thought that he knew where Nate had gotten that ability to stay straight-faced with officers. He wondered exactly what it was that Nate's mom did for a living. She was wearing a suit, which only narrowed it down to things Nate's mother logically would do. "Oh, you have a friend visiting."
"Yeah," Nate said, shutting the closet door on the folded stroller. "Mom, this is Staff Sergeant Brad Colbert, one of my Marines. Brad, my mom, Karen Fick."
"Ma'am," Brad said, stepping forward and juggling Linus to offer his hand. "I apologize for showing up out of the blue like I did and distracting Nate. He said he meant to call and spare you a trip."
She smiled as she shook his hand, but Brad could still see something intent and calculating in her eyes--trying to figure out Nate and Brad's real relationship, maybe, or just trying to use him as a data point to gauge Nate's condition. Either way, Brad hoped she'd brief him if she figured it out.
"No problem, Brad, of course. Nate could use a little distraction right now. And it's perfectly understandable that he wouldn't be answering his phone with you here."
Brad concentrated on keeping his smile utterly bland and friendly, even though he couldn't help thinking that if his mother had said that he'd know exactly what she meant by it. Nate's mom was harder to read, and Nate wasn't giving him any keys to translation, just standing halfway between them looking like a perfectly innocent and oblivious civilian.
"Yes, ma'am," Brad said. "He was pretty beat when I got here, so I gave him his bottle and put him to bed."
Nate actually laughed at that, and Brad grinned at the sight even as it occurred to him that he didn't know whether Nate was honestly laughing or just trying to put on the right show for his mother. Brad kept the grin on his face even so.
Nate's mom shook her head, smiling, and reached for Linus. "Well, no trip is wasted if I get to hold my grandson."
Brad handed the baby over because there was no way not to. With her attention on Linus he stole a look at Nate, just in time to catch the split second of horrible tension crossing his face.
Brad was certain, then, that his deduction the day before had been correct. Nate might love his mom as much as anyone, but she was a civilian, and if she was looking after Linus that really just meant that Nate had to be ready to evacuate two civilians, one of whom wouldn't automatically follow his orders and couldn't be picked up and moved easily. And once he was worrying about that he'd be worrying about what would happen to his mom if she wasn't with him, and what might happen to the rest of his family....
Nate got his smile back in place and Brad looked over to see his mom look up as she rocked Linus. "He looks just like Nate at this age, Brad. I don't even have to show you the embarrassing naked baby pictures, you can just change Linus's diaper and get the same idea."
Brad kept a completely straight face and did not ask about how precise that resemblance was. He said, blandly, "Already did that, ma'am. Found out about not giving him a clear shot and everything."
Brad had gotten pissed on once and only once.
Nate was blushing, rubbing his face with one hand and losing his battle against a smile. Brad was pretty sure at least one of those reactions was genuine.
Nate's mom laughed. "Well, I can see my boys are in good hands, then. I'd better get to work. There's more food in the fridge, honey--try to actually eat some of it in the next couple of days, all right?"
"I will," Nate promised, making his motions look almost perfectly casual as he reached for Linus. "Brad will help."
"I'm sure he will," Nate's mom said, stepping in to kiss Nate's cheek as she put Linus into Nate's hands.
She turned away from him to Brad, smiling and reaching for him, and Brad decided that she didn't care whether he was Nate's boyfriend as long as he kept her son and grandson in one piece. He didn't bother trying not to look uncomfortable as she darted in and put her hand on his shoulder, but he ducked to let her kiss his cheek. He watched over her shoulder as Nate turned half away, hiding embarrassment at his mother or the intensity of his relief at having Linus back in his own arms.
Brad was just straightening up when Linus let out a little squall, waking up in his usual demanding mood. Nate turned back toward them, holding Linus tightly against his chest, and said, "Sorry, Mom, I'd better--"
"Yeah, that's Grandma's cue," she said, smiling and stepping toward the door. "Have a good day, guys."
"I'll walk you out," Nate said, and passed Linus, still crying, to Brad without making eye contact. Brad held his ground, and Nate stepped around him to follow his mother to the door.
Brad couldn't help checking Mrs. Fick's reaction, and caught her brief startled look at the sight of Nate casually giving up Linus to someone else. In the next second it was swallowed up in a benign smile at Nate, and she offered him her arm as she turned.
"Guess that means I'm making breakfast," Brad said to their backs, tucking Linus up against his chest and heading for the kitchen. It only took a few seconds to get Linus quieted down--there was a pacifier on the kitchen table, which helped--and then Brad tucked him into the swing and got on with fixing his bottle.
Nate went straight into the shower when he came back in, and Brad figured that was as clear a request as he was going to get not to mention anything that had just happened. He added it to the list of things he wasn't bringing up and sat down with Linus to watch Animal Planet until Nate was dressed.
Brad automatically took the spot in the backseat beside Linus, on the opposite side from Nate. Nate didn't say a word about Brad's choice. It wasn't until they were on the way and Brad found himself scanning everything on his side of the Jeep that he realized what he was doing. He was watching his sector, and Nate had recognized that as automatically as Brad did.
Brad shut his eyes for a few seconds, leaning his forehead against the window, and barely managed to count to five before Nate said, "Brad? Everything okay?"
Brad picked his head up and met Nate's gaze as Nate darted a quick look over his shoulder.
"We're fine," Brad assured him. Brad rested a hand on Linus's chest and went back to watching out his side of the car, memorizing the route as they went, mentally mapping it against the way he'd come down from the airport yesterday. A few more laps and he'd have a pretty good grip on the DC-to-Baltimore corridor.
They were silent--Nate driving, Linus sleeping, Brad watching--until they passed the first sign for the airport and Nate said, "Concourse E, right?"
"Yeah," Brad said. "Lower level, baggage claim. I have to find out what British Air did with my gear after Ray convinced them to hang on to it."
"Would that be before or after they fed it to bomb-sniffing dogs?"
Brad winced and smiled, turning his head a little further to hide his expression from Nate. "After is obviously the only relevant question. Before won't make much of a difference by now. But surely the fact that I wanted the luggage off the plane proves I'm not a terrorist?"
"You could have gotten cold feet," Nate pointed out blandly. "They'll want to make sure."
"In that case, the fact that nobody broke down your door in the night seems like a good sign."
"They'd have gone after Ray first, he's the one who called the airport. He could be in Guantanamo by now. They may not have figured out your twenty yet. He wouldn't have told them."
Brad frowned out the window and considered that, then pulled out his phone. Tell me you're not being detained as a suspected terrorist.
He stared at his phone. Ray did not respond.
"You'd better come in with me, sir," Brad said. "I might need a witness to let my superiors know I went AWOL because I got disappeared by the TSA."
The silence while Nate didn't respond to that was very loud.
"Even if it doesn't turn into a security issue it could take a while," Brad offered. "I wouldn't want to leave you circling."
Nate knew perfectly well why Brad wanted him to come into the airport. Brad knew he knew. He knew neither of them were going to say it voluntarily; he just wasn't sure if Nate would try to force the issue again.
Nate took the turn for hourly parking, and Brad had his answer.
They'd walked about ten feet from the car when Brad caught himself cataloguing all the available ambush positions afforded by the rows of parked cars in the garage. Nate had Linus tucked up against his shoulder and was constantly looking around, including behind him, until Brad dropped back a step and took his six. Nate walked a little faster after that, and didn't turn his head again.
It got worse once they went into the terminal; the sight lines were slightly better, but they were surrounded by people moving in every direction at once--wearing heavy clothes, carrying all kinds of baggage, and as this was an unsecured area there was no telling what was in any of those bags. Brad's eyes never stopped moving, trying to evaluate everyone and also keep tabs on Nate. Nate was moving faster now, and Brad stayed on his heels. He could feel himself bracing to do something--catch Nate, shield him from an attack, he didn't even know what. And he was supposed to be the calm one.
He had to stop sharply when Nate turned on him, and Linus was in Brad's hands even as Nate said, "Take him for a minute, I need the head. Ten meters, your eleven o'clock."
Brad glanced in that direction and spotted the baggage office, and even as he nodded Nate was brushing past him and disappearing into the crowd. Brad stood still for a few seconds, looking after him, but Nate was moving purposefully toward the men's room sign. If he needed a few minutes in a small enclosed space to pull himself together--well, at least Brad knew where Linus was. Nate would come back for Linus as soon as he was able.
Brad turned back to the baggage office and set out in that direction, forcing himself not to look closely at the people walking by. BWI was not a war zone.
As it turned out, the baby made a good prop; Brad barely had to explain why he was there, just pulled his ID out of his pocket and let the woman behind the counter coo at Linus while she tracked down his luggage. As closely as Brad watched, he couldn't see any sign that she was calling in reinforcements to detain him. She did disappear into a back room for a couple of minutes, but returned just as Nate walked up to the door.
She had Brad's sea bag with her, and no extra security. The bag was, however, adorned with a few extra INSPECTED BY TSA stickers. Brad resigned himself to everything inside being fucked up.
"I'll be right with you," the woman said past Brad, and Nate said, "No, I'm with him," at the same moment Brad turned and tried to give him the baby to free his own hands. Brad hesitated at the last second, catching sight of Nate's carefully blank expression and the tautness of his shoulders.
Nate sidestepped without a glance at Brad or Linus, moving around Brad to reach for the bag, and Brad looked the other way at exactly the right second to watch the baggage claim woman put it together: Brad, Brad's military ID, the baby, Nate. It wouldn't have been obvious without Linus; without Linus they were just two guys. With Linus, they were too obviously a couple--too obviously a family--to mistake.
The instant of realization passed, and she gave a plastic-bright smile and settled Brad's bag into Nate's arms as gingerly as if it were another baby, as if it hadn't already been very thoroughly violated.
Nate said, "Thank you," and shouldered the bag, turning even as he did. He walked, stiff-legged and head up, straight back out of the confined, cornered space of the office.
Brad gave the woman a quick smile, swallowing all the things he could have said to try to explain it away. He wasn't going to waste the time, not on her, not when he was fighting the impulse to do just the opposite, to cheerfully confirm everything she was thinking.
Instead he said, "Thank you, ma'am."
She nodded, and her smile relaxed to something almost sincere, and then Brad was off after Nate. He caught up to him halfway back to the bridge to the parking garage. All the way there he was watching the people they passed, and instead of wondering if one of them had explosives under their coat, Brad found himself wondering what they saw when they looked at him and Nate and Linus. He should have felt exposed. He tried like hell not to feel hopeful.
He glanced over at Nate as they reached the garage and felt abruptly guilty for even considering it. Nate wasn't worrying about it, for the same reason Nate didn't seem to have noticed what the woman at the baggage office was thinking; Nate was still watching for an ambush.
When they reached the car, Nate unlocked the back passenger door and then moved around to the trunk. Brad shifted his grip on Linus and opened the door. It couldn't be that hard to get a kid belted into a car seat.
Brad had gotten as far as setting Linus down, and was just starting to maneuver the belts around him, when he heard an echoing high-pitched screech. He automatically ducked lower, getting his head down and flattening a hand over Linus. He heard a thud from Nate's direction at the same instant he realized that had been a car taking a corner too fast somewhere in the parking garage. Brad glanced at Linus--he had his pacifier plugged in and his eyes closed, so if he wasn't asleep he was close enough--and then shifted backward to check on Nate.
Nate was crouched beside the wheel, and when he glanced up at Brad he reached up without a word and hauled Brad downward and sideways, into the cover between the wheels of Nate's car and the next one over. Brad hit the concrete on his knees and Nate tipped onto his ass, his back against the tire. Brad tried to shift away, but Nate jerked him in closer.
"Stay here," Nate insisted. "We're safe right here."
He was grinning, all his grim containment gone. He looked like he was in a firefight, like he'd just gotten that shot of adrenaline and the world had narrowed down to a problem he could probably solve: not getting shot. And not letting Brad get shot, either.
He didn't let go of Brad's arm, and his hand was hot against Brad's skin, overlapping the edge of his t-shirt sleeve. Brad's knees were between Nate's splayed legs, and Brad braced a hand on the tire behind Nate's head, holding himself as much away from Nate as he could without fighting to break his grip. If they'd both been in full gear they'd be touching, knocking Kevlar, but he wouldn't be able to feel the sweat of Nate's palm, the twitching of his fingers against Brad's skin. Nate's breath would sound the same, but Brad might not be able to hear it above the zip of bullets and the radio chatter.
Brad had a weird, doubled awareness of their bodies, the closeness of his face to Nate's. He knew what it was to Nate, who was six thousand miles away from here--it was safety, urgency, a moment when any touch was excusable and there was no possibility of it meaning anything but what it meant. Nate's gaze was darting around, checking angles of possible attack.
At the same time, Brad was in Baltimore in civvies with his body held barely out of contact with Nate's, Nate's quick breath tangible against his cheek. Brad couldn't take his eyes off Nate, and he knew how this would look to anyone else, how this could be something else, lead to something else, if he could possibly reach from where he was to where Nate was.
Brad glanced toward the open car door. Linus hadn't made a peep yet. Brad wasn't sure whether to wish he would cry or not; sooner or later Nate was either going to snap out of this or he was going to reach for a rifle or radio that wasn't there. For now they were staying in cover, and Nate was trying to catch his breath.
Brad listened to the cars outside--rumbling engines, honking horns--and tried to pick out the sounds of people, wondering if they sounded like civilians to Nate right now. Brad watched the tempo of Nate's glances slow down, his eyes finally settling on Brad. He blinked a couple of times, frowning. Nate opened his mouth to speak and didn't say a word. Brad knew he could stand up now, could break Nate's grip, break the illusion--multiple illusions, maybe all of them--and end this. He was still debating whether to do it when he heard, and saw Nate hear, a little kid's voice a few rows over.
Brad couldn't make out words, wasn't sure if it was a boy or a girl, but it didn't matter. The kid was speaking English. They were in a parking garage in Baltimore. Brad saw a split second of horror go over Nate--like he thought the kid was in Iraq, under fire--and his fingers tightened painfully on Brad's arm. Then he turned his head, shoved Brad away and scrambled up to his feet, going back to the still-open trunk of the Jeep.
Brad sat for a few seconds longer between the cars, and then he stood up and leaned into the backseat. Linus was definitely asleep. Brad leaned over far enough to kiss his cheek, and then shifted back a little and said in a normal voice, "Okay, little man, let's figure out how your seatbelt goes on."
The trunk closed with as quiet a click as possible, and Brad ignored the motion in his peripheral vision, focused on getting all five points fastened on the seatbelt without jostling Linus enough to wake him up again. When Brad backed out of the car Nate was standing beside the door. He had his head down. His shoulders were rigid. Brad thought he was shaking a little; he'd have to touch him to know for sure, and he'd rather put his hands on unexploded munitions right now.
Nate took his hand out of his pocket and tossed his keys at Brad without looking--badly off-target, but Brad caught them.
Nate didn't say a word, just brushed past Brad and got into the backseat, pulling the door shut when Brad stepped out of the way. Brad stood looking at him through the window; Nate didn't look up, and didn't reach over for Linus.
Brad turned on his heel, heading toward the driver's door. "Yes, sir," he muttered. "My turn to drive."
Nate went straight to his desk when they got back to the apartment, turning the TV back to CNN on mute. Brad stood by the chair for a minute, holding Linus against his chest, watching Nate doggedly ignore them both, and then he picked up The Odyssey and took book and baby to Linus's bedroom.
He'd barely settled into the chair there when Nate was in the doorway, arms folded across his chest. He stood there for a minute, watching Brad while Brad watched him back. He looked like he didn't know why he was standing there, and like nothing on Earth was going to move him from that spot.
Finally, quietly, Brad said, "If you need something, Nate, you need to ask."
Nate looked down, nodded, and said to his feet in a brisk, steady voice that wasn't asking anyone for anything, "Stay where I can see you for a while. Please. It helps."
Brad went on watching Nate until he turned sharply and walked away, leaving Brad to obey the order or not. Brad followed him like they both knew he would.
Nate stayed dug in at his desk like it was a fortified position, only speaking up once--to correct Brad's pronunciation of Telemachus--for the next several hours. He didn't twitch when Linus cried, and Brad never caught him looking at them. After Linus had been through a couple of wake-and-sleeps and Nate had started actually typing at his computer instead of just sitting there staring fixedly at it, Brad went as far as the kitchen to make himself and Nate some food.
Nate came in, almost casually, when the food was ready. He took his plate and stood at the counter, leaving the chair--and Linus--to Brad. By the time Brad had finished eating, Nate was cleaning up, and Brad went back into the living room. He listened for the better part of an hour while Nate scrubbed the kitchen like there was an inspection coming; he came out with his hands looking red and raw and his eyes half-shut.
"Sorry," he said, pausing by Brad's chair and looking down at Linus, "I gotta crash a while."
Brad waited, but Nate didn't lean in for another kiss, didn't reach out to touch Linus at all. Brad gave him a nod, and Nate crossed over to the couch and fell onto it. Brad sat looking at his feet in white socks for a while after Nate was asleep. Linus woke up a few minutes later, and Brad was back in motion.
Nate slept for almost three hours. Brad was browsing the news on his laptop--balanced on the arm of his chair, Linus tucked into his opposite arm--when Nate jerked awake. Brad had barely looked up in response to the sudden motion when Nate was launching himself off the couch, bolting around Brad to the bathroom. Brad heard the water running almost immediately, and he forced himself to keep still; the words in front of him were blurring, and Linus stirred fitfully against his chest, little feet kicking and face screwing up.
Brad closed his laptop and stood, shifting Linus to the other arm and starting to pace. Linus was still whimpering, and Brad bounced him a little, cuddling him closer. "Not you too, little man. You're not old enough to be having your daddy's bad dreams."
Linus settled down before the water shut off in the bathroom; by the time Nate came back Linus was sound asleep again, and Brad was right back where he'd been when Nate bolted.
Nate went back to his desk and settled in. This time he started typing right away, but he still didn't look around. Brad knew better than to imagine that he could step out of the room without making things worse, but it was far from the most awkward close quarters situation he'd ever endured. He shifted to the couch, put his feet up on the coffee table, and updated the log book before opening his laptop again.
He got tired early, barely after dark, and by then Nate seemed sincerely occupied with what he was doing. Brad stood and stretched and said, "Gonna hit the sack."
Nate looked up, his eyes darting quickly from Brad to Linus and back. "Sleep well."
He stumbled out of the bedroom with Linus for diaper changes and bottles twice after that. The first time Nate was still working. The second time Nate was sitting motionless on the couch with his head in his hands. Brad didn't say a word either time.
At some point he woke in darkness, and realized the whole apartment was dark: no light in the living room, no TV. Nate walked into the bedroom a few seconds after that and said quietly, "Don't get up with him next time, it's my shift."
"Roger that," Brad muttered, and his eyes were already closed again when he felt Nate get in on the other side of the bed.
The next time Brad was awakened it was by Nate getting out of bed; Linus was only snuffling and squirming, not really crying yet. Brad watched with half-lidded eyes as Nate walked all the way around the bed to get to him, and the thought slowly assembled in his mind that he could make that easier for Nate next time. A while after that--after Nate had left the room--Brad followed through, rolling over into the still-warm spot where Nate had been lying. When he woke up again there was gray light leaking in through the windows, and Nate was asleep beside him, and Linus was asleep in the crib on the other side of Nate.
Family, Brad thought, and the word snapped into place like a fully loaded magazine into the catch. With the baby there, they were impossible to mistake.
Except that Brad still didn't know where Nate was at any given moment. There was no telling what Nate saw, or what it looked like to him. At some point Brad was going to ask, and when he did he was going to have to get through the conversation that followed and live with the answer.
For now Nate was sleeping. Linus was sleeping. Brad wasn't making a sound. They were what they were.
They went running again, this time leaving in broad daylight. Brad was in actual running gear this time, and they'd timed it so that they left right after Linus was changed and fed. Brad wasn't especially surprised when they struck out westward and kept going to the border of the District before turning back. Nate was still checking every angle and monitoring foot-mobiles, but he didn't get worked up like he had at the airport, and there were no surprise visitors waiting for them back at the apartment when they got in. Nate offered Brad the first shower, and Brad took it, making himself stay under the running water a solid ten minutes rather than rushing back out.
Nate was sitting on the couch feeding Linus when Brad came out in clean clothes, and Brad sat down next to him. Linus spit up on Nate's running clothes in the process of being burped, and Nate just handed him off to Brad and headed for the shower.
"Good timing," Brad observed.
"I have had some practice at this," Nate agreed, flashing a smile.
Brad found a channel showing classic cartoons, ridiculously censored of their original violence but still a thousand times better than the new shit being churned out for kids. He propped Linus on his lap facing the TV, and pretended not to notice when the baby fell asleep. Nate came back and sat down with him after a while, and they both managed to sit straight-faced watching Bugs Bunny for about five minutes before they were reciting along with it and talking about why they'd rather have had Acme doing logistics for the invasion than the contractors who'd actually been on the ground.
"I mean, seriously," Brad said, "look at that delivery time. They'd have been air-dropping batteries to us."
"Road Runner could deliver them," Nate muttered, and Brad looked over and realized that Nate was about an eyelash away from being asleep.
"Yes, sir," Brad said quietly, "right over a cliff."
Nate nodded slightly, and his eyes fell shut.
Brad sat watching him for a few minutes--he was starting to get used to the way it felt--and then lifted Linus from his own lap and set him in Nate's. Nate's eyes didn't open, but his hands came up automatically to hold Linus in place against his stomach. Brad got up quietly and went directly to the second drawer of Nate's desk, where he'd seen the digital camera, and took half a dozen pictures of the sleeping Ficks before he put it back where he'd found it.
When he sat down again he was closer to Nate than he'd been before, but Nate didn't move at all until the next time Linus woke up.
Nate asked Brad to hold Linus for a while after that wakeup, and Brad sat with Linus on his shoulder while he checked his email and made up sufficiently ridiculous stories about how his leave was going for a few guys back in Devon. Brad handed the baby off to Nate when he wanted to make lunch, and Nate gave him back and did the dishes, and this time when he sat down next to Brad they wound up watching Pulp Fiction. Linus woke up twice in the course of the movie, and one of them would change his diaper while the other made a bottle. They worked smoothly together, and it felt almost easy, almost like this could just be how it was, if Brad weren't waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Brad didn't realize he'd fallen asleep on the couch until he jerked awake when Linus screamed. Brad had never heard him make that sound before, and even as he was realizing that sometime in the last forty-eight hours he'd become someone who could tell one baby-cry from another, he was on his feet. He started moving toward the sound--they were in Linus's bedroom, and Linus's screaming showed no sign of settling down--and when Brad turned the corner into the hallway he met Nate coming toward him.
Nate looked as awful as Linus sounded, and he was repeating in a low, steady voice, "I'm sorry, Linus, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, shh--"
Brad barely resisted grabbing the baby out of Nate's hands; he did reach out, and then stopped short. Nate froze when he looked up and saw Brad, and then held Linus out. Brad gathered him to his chest--it took a surprising amount of strength to hold him still with the way he was fighting, and as Brad secured Linus in his grip it occurred to him how easy it would be to hold on just a little bit harder, too hard, and he realized what Nate had been saying.
Brad's head snapped up as he looked to Nate. Linus had never sounded like this before, maybe scared, maybe hurt, and the possibility woke something weird in Brad, something way beyond his reaction to being in danger himself. Half-yelling to be heard over the awful sound, Brad said, "What did you--"
That was as far as he got. Nate looked shocked for a split second and then coldly, dangerously furious; Brad registered that he'd been wrong at the same time that Nate's weight shifted and his shoulder started to go back. His hands were already in fists. He was telegraphing the punch a mile away.
Brad risked taking his left hand off of Linus to shove Nate back with an open palm and yelled on purpose this time. "Not while I'm holding your kid, you fucking psycho!"
Nate let himself be pushed off, but his rage didn't visibly lessen. His fists stayed clenched, his whole body radiating fury as he shouldered past Brad and all but ran for the front door.
Brad couldn't chase him, couldn't stop him with his arms full of the baby, and didn't especially want to keep him in the same small space with Linus screaming like a siren. Still, he put all the command presence he'd ever learned into it as he shouted, "Fick!"
He didn't care if Nate responded to it automatically or was thrown off stride by the affront of Brad daring to try to order him to do anything. He stopped before the door, and turned his head far enough that he could see Brad in his peripheral vision, and Brad could see the side of his face.
"Where's your cell phone?" Brad demanded, even as he bounced Linus gently against his chest. The screaming wasn't subsiding.
Nate still didn't speak. He reached into the pocket of his pants and pulled out a phone, then shoved it back into place as he unlocked the door and fled through it. He had his go-fasters on. He closed the door hard behind him, not quite a slam.
Brad turned his back to the door and took Linus into Nate's room.
"Shh, shh," he murmured to Linus. Nate's reaction--along with the fact that Nate hadn't called 911--almost certainly meant that Nate hadn't actually hurt Linus, that Linus was just scared, or just having some random fit of crying because he was a baby and babies did that.
That didn't mean Brad wasn't going to check. He laid Linus down in the crib next to the bed and managed to wrestle his onesie off without doing exactly what he'd accused Nate of. He took Linus's socks, too, but left the horseshoe, which didn't hide anything and wasn't making any marks Brad could see. Brad ran his hands over Linus's feet and each leg, probing for injuries or any spot that made Linus scream louder when he touched it. He undid Linus's diaper for the sake of being thorough and checked his hips, butt, genitals, and belly, but there was nothing to see, nothing that seemed to hurt.
Linus's wailing was already changing in tone from that horrible thing he'd started with to the irritated crying he did sometimes while having his diaper changed. Brad did the diaper back up before Linus decided to express his displeasure in biohazardous form, and continued checking his chest and arms and what there was of his throat. Then he turned the kid onto his stomach and checked his back, his neck, and his head.
Linus managed to pick his head up just to scream more. Brad picked him up and then, when that motivated Linus to struggle harder, dropped flat on the bed to let Linus rest on his chest.
"Sorry, little man. Your daddy will be back soon. Shh, shh." Linus was already settling down, and the crying tailed off completely while Brad half-sang, half-mumbled his way through a Spice Girls song. Brad waited a while after he was quiet, and then shifted enough to get to his own phone in his pants pocket.
He had a text message from Ray--I wish, interrogation would use 300% more of my skills than this lameass job.--which he assumed would make sense at some future time when he gave some attention to figuring out what Ray thought they were talking about.
In the meantime Brad texted Nate. He's sleeping now. Come home when you're ready.
Brad stared at his silent phone long enough to remember that he'd asked Ray, more than a day ago, whether he'd been arrested as a terrorist. He picked the phone up and texted Nate again.
Five minutes later, while Brad was considering whether to get Nate's mom's phone number from Ray, Nate texted back.
When Nate had been gone two hours, Brad texted him again. INT: Are you alive? Over.
That text came back almost immediately. Affirmative.
It got dark. Brad ate dinner. Linus slept and woke and made little snuffling noises. It might have been Brad's imagination, but the baby seemed worn out, resting more limply against Brad, giving up on his bottle faster in favor of falling asleep.
Brad sat on the couch and waited with the TV off and his laptop closed, not even pretending that he was doing anything else.
He listened to Nate's neighbors on the same hallway getting home, and he recognized Nate's footsteps when they approached. He recognized the jingle of Nate's keys. Brad slouched back on the couch with Linus asleep on his chest, and watched Nate come in.
Nate locked the door behind himself and stood right there for a while, looking back at Brad.
Softly, trying to let his voice enter the silence without a splash, Brad said, "I'll put him down if you want to hit me now. You have the right, for what I said."
Nate started walking toward him, hands shoved untidily into the pockets of his jeans.
Brad kept talking steadily. "I was serious, though. Not while I'm holding him."
Nate stopped right in front of Brad, their knees brushing. He was looking down at Brad, holding his gaze, while Brad looked up. Nate recited evenly, without expression, "You fucking psycho."
Brad tilted his head and shrugged a little. "Hit me twice, then. But I have to put him down first, and now you're in my way."
Nate leaned forward--telegraphing a mile away again--and picked Linus up off of Brad's chest. He kissed the top of Linus's head and then turned and sat down at the end of the couch, leaving as much space as physically possible between him and Brad. Brad folded his arms across his chest and waited, watching the way Nate sat. He didn't lean back and get comfortable. He didn't sit ramrod-straight, making some kind of point. He just slumped forward, with Linus cradled against his chest. He looked tired.
"That's the longest I've been away from him since I brought him home from the hospital," Nate said, looking down at Linus. "He only spent one night there, but I couldn't stay with him in the nursery, and Cory didn't want me hanging around her hospital room, so I came back here. I couldn't sleep. I couldn't think about anything but keeping him safe. I started assembling that pack. I didn't sleep again until I had it all ready to go. He changed everything."
Brad held perfectly still and didn't make a sound.
"I have PTSD," Nate said, still looking down at his son. "It got a lot worse when Linus was born, and it's pretty bad right now. If I don't do something about it somebody's going to get hurt, and the easiest person for me to hurt is him."
It was a good and necessary thing, Brad knew. It only felt like watching Nate bleed out from a wound neither of them could find to put pressure on.
Brad shifted closer on the couch, scooting up and over until he was pressed to Nate's side. He felt Nate feel it--Nate's shoulder jerked a little against his--but Nate didn't pull away. Brad hunched over further than Nate, propping his elbows on his knees so he could look up into Nate's face. He didn't need to say that he was there, or that Nate only had to ask if there was anything he wanted Brad to do. He just had to be there, shoulder to shoulder and thigh to thigh with Nate. He watched Nate look down at Linus and waited.
"Linus's first checkup is tomorrow morning," Nate said, and then looked up and met Brad's eyes. His mouth turned up, a ghost of a weary smile. "I realize there's no point pretending you won't be there, but please come with us. It would be a big help to me."
"You're right," Brad said with a nod. "No point pretending I'd be anywhere else."
Nate nodded back and then returned to staring down at Linus. Brad leaned into Nate, a gentle whole-body shove. "We should get to bed."
Nate did tense, then, and he didn't look up. "Brad...."
"We all need to sleep. We all need each other in sight." Brad kept his voice steady and cool as he added, "I don't plan to give you any more reasons to hit me."
"I wouldn't," Nate said quietly, and Brad tried not to let those small, tired words mean too much to him, even as he knew he wouldn't be able to help it. "I just--tonight--"
"Tonight we're both too fucking tired to talk about this, and I don't want to be out here on your couch, and I don't want you out here on your couch. Like you just said. No use pretending we're not all going the same place."
Brad worked his shoulder against Nate's and added, "You should take the side by the crib, it's your turn next time he wakes up."
Nate nodded, and after another minute he stood. Brad followed him into the bedroom, turning off the couple of lights he'd put on as he went. Neither of them bothered with a light in the bedroom, and Brad started undressing right away, while Nate was still leaning over the crib, murmuring things Brad pretended not to hear. Brad got into the bed first and closed his eyes, not watching even the silhouette of Nate undressing.
There was a moment of slightly awkward motion when Nate got into the bed, shifting weight and tugging at covers. Brad was trying to find an angle he could lie at to have his feet on the bed without intruding too far into Nate's space and then realized that Nate, who wasn't much shorter, was doing the same.
They wound up lying at almost parallel angles, heads slightly less than a pillow's width apart, shoulders almost brushing. When they'd both been still for a while and Brad was starting to think he might actually sleep soon, Nate spoke.
"I got scared."
Brad's eyes came open like the words were a gunshot, but he looked over at Nate without moving. His eyes had adapted enough for him to see that Nate had his eyes closed.
"Yeah?" Brad offered, when Nate didn't say anything else.
"That's the answer to your question," Nate said, still without opening his eyes. "You wanted to know what I did to make Linus cry like that. I got--" Brad saw him hesitate this time, looking for a different word. His mouth tightened for a second when he realized there wasn't one. "Scared. Anytime I get really tense, if I'm holding him, he cries like he's scared, too. He won't stop if I don't calm down, and it's hard to calm down when I'm making him cry."
"At the airport," Brad said, remembering that abrupt handoff. "And when your mom was here."
Nate did open his eyes then, turning his head to meet Brad's gaze as he nodded.
Brad wanted very badly to say You could have just hit me. But if Nate was going to be brave about this, Brad wasn't going to leave him alone in it, or show reluctance to stay with him through it.
"Thanks," Brad said instead. "Good to know. He did calm down pretty fast once I realized he was okay."
Nate nodded again and turned onto his side, facing away from Brad, and Brad closed his eyes.
Brad woke up twice to Nate getting in and out of the bed, and once he found himself standing in the kitchen holding Linus and wasn't quite sure how he'd gotten there. Linus nuzzled intently at his chest, making hungry getting-ready-to-cry noises, so Brad gave up on figuring it out and made a bottle.
It was getting light when Brad woke up and found Nate sitting on the edge of the bed, staring into Linus's crib.
"He's still sleeping," Nate said quietly. "It's been over three hours."
Brad frowned. "I got up--"
Nate glanced over his shoulder. "That was three hours ago."
He went back to staring at Linus, and Brad wondered whether Nate had actually slept at all overnight. He said, "Please tell me you haven't been sitting there staring at him for an hour."
"Ten minutes," Nate said, and Brad figured that wasn't too bad. "I tried to lie down and wait for him to wake up, but I had to keep checking that he was still breathing."
Brad pressed his face into the pillow for a few seconds, and then he pushed himself up to sit and put his hands on Nate's bare shoulders. Nate turned his head and met Brad's eyes, and Brad tugged, dragging Nate down toward his pillow. Nate went where Brad wanted him, lying back, but his face was closed and unreadable as he looked up at Brad, waiting for whatever Brad was going to do next.
Brad felt the impulse flash through him like lightning. He could distract Nate from Linus, distract him from everything. But even if Nate allowed it--hell, even if he welcomed it--it wouldn't be what Nate needed from him right now.
Brad shook his head slightly and knelt up, leaning precariously across Nate to the crib. When he reached for Linus, Nate put his hand up on the center of Brad's chest, taking some of his weight. Brad picked up the baby with two hands and settled back onto his heels. He laid Linus down on Nate's chest, and then lay down again next to them while Nate wrapped both arms gingerly around the kid.
"There," Brad said when his head was back on the pillow and his eyes were nearly closed. "Problem solved. Go back to sleep."
"Thanks," Nate said dryly, "this is much more relaxing." But he didn't put Linus back in the crib, and Brad slept another hour before Nate moved enough to wake him up.
Brad stood at Nate's side while Nate signed in with the receptionist at the doctor's office, and just like the woman at the airport, Brad could see her taking one look at them and coming up with her answer. Brad turned away, keeping an eye on the rest of the room while Nate filled out the clipboard she'd given him, handing it back before they went to sit down.
Brad glanced over once they were settled to see what Nate thought of the looks they were getting, but Nate had grabbed a magazine off the stack on the waiting room table and was reading--or at least feigning interest in--an article about potty training. Nate had a baby backpack for non-emergency use, too, so he had Linus sleeping cradled against his chest and both hands free. He was using those hands to flip idly through a magazine.
Nate looked up--Brad had been staring pretty obviously for several seconds--and his expression was so calm and guileless that Brad would have bought it if he didn't know better. Linus was still asleep, so Nate couldn't be completely freaking out under there, but Nate choosing this moment to actually relax didn't make a hell of a lot of sense either.
"Here," Nate said, and Brad realized Nate had grabbed another magazine and was offering it to him. Brad was never going to be interested in doing Christmas crafts with his kids, especially not in March, but he nodded and took the magazine, letting it fall open in his hands while he looked around more carefully.
Their appointment was early, so there weren't many other people in the waiting room. There was a black couple in the next row of chairs with a miserable-looking toddler lying across both their laps, and a white woman three seats down from Brad had a baby in a carrier seat on the floor in front of her. She was rocking the seat with her foot while staring intently at her Palm Pilot. Brad was perfectly happy to accept an assessment of extremely low risk on their surroundings, but--he glanced sideways again--Nate just hadn't been that logical in the last few days. He was eerily calm now. Stepford.
The couple with the sick toddler got called back, and a moment later a nurse was in the doorway asking for Linus Fick.
Nate stood and Brad stood with him, following him through the door like he had an absolute right to be there, no matter how much it confirmed the deductions behind those looks. The nurse just showed them into a little room--markedly warmer than the waiting room, with a space heater in one corner--and said, "If you could get Linus down to his diaper, the doctor will be here in just a minute."
"Thanks," Nate said, showing her a smile.
He turned his back to the door to face the exam table, unsnapping the baby backpack with one hand and bracing Linus with the other. Brad moved around to the other side of the table--back to the wall, and he could watch Nate's six even if he was out of position to shield him--and reached for Linus as Nate got the fastenings undone. Nate let Brad take him and lay him down, and then Brad kept his hands on either side of Linus while Nate undressed him. Nate tugged his socks off last, and his hands paused in their methodical motions.
Nate didn't look up. Brad watched Nate's hands, hovering over the horseshoe charm.
Nate untied the ribbon and stuffed the horseshoe into his pocket, and Brad made his face as expressionless as he could. It was going to be like that, then. The doctor didn't need to know about anything Nate didn't want him to know about, and Brad wasn't going to push him.
Linus started moving around a little, making discontented noises but not quite awake yet.
"Could you hold him while I--" Nate gestured toward the backpack, and Brad nodded and picked Linus up, unzipping his fleece to hold Linus half-inside it against his chest while Nate got the backpack off. Linus settled quickly into the warmth and went quiet and still, sleeping soundly again. Nate turned aside to stack the backpack and Linus's clothes on a chair, and of course that was when the doctor--a Chinese guy who came up maybe to Nate's shoulder--walked in.
He saw Brad first--Brad didn't look over at Nate's suppressed startle from the door opening behind him--and smiled brightly as he said, "Mr. Fick?"
"That's me. Call me Nate, please," Nate said, turning and getting his smile back into place, offering a hand to shake which the doctor accepted with only a quick flickering glance between them. "This is Brad, he's been helping me with Linus, I figured he might as well come with us and hear how we're doing."
"Of course," the doctor said, stepping in and offering Brad his hand. He didn't look surprised at all, so maybe this was totally normal, or maybe the nurse had briefed him.
Brad shuffled Linus over and shook, and the doctor said, "I'm Dr. Lee, it's good to meet you both. And this must be Linus?"
Brad got both hands back on Linus, and Dr. Lee put his arms out expectantly. Brad looked over at Nate even as he held the baby out, but Nate stood his ground, out of arm's reach. The doctor took Linus in an obviously experienced grip.
Dr. Lee rocked Linus a little, brushing a finger against his cheek, and said, "He seems like a pretty good sleeper, huh?"
"He's used to being held and passed back and forth," Nate said, shoving his hands into his pockets. The fingers of his right hand moved visibly in his pocket, worrying at the horseshoe.
Brad stepped out from behind the table and took up a station by Nate's side, close enough for their arms to touch.
"He sleeps about two hours at a time," Nate went on, "and he'll sleep through just about anything. The other day we had to go to the airport to get Brad's stuff, and Linus didn't even wake up for planes going overhead. He sleeps in the stroller when we go running."
The doctor nodded, looking back and forth from Nate to Linus--poking a finger into his hand, rubbing a thumb over the sole of his foot. "You hold him most of the time, then, or do you usually put him down when he's asleep?"
"I hold him more," Nate said, and Brad watched in fascination; Nate sounded completely calm and casual, like he didn't document this shit minute-by-minute in his logbook, which he definitely hadn't brought along to show the doctor. "He sleeps in a crib by my bed when I'm sleeping, but otherwise--it's just easier to have him right with me, I can respond faster when he needs something."
The doctor nodded, flipped Linus to the other arm, and resumed gently poking at him on the other side. His voice was low and soothing. "Some families find that works best for them, keeping the baby close. You said he's sleeping two hours at a time--he's eating about every two hours, then?"
Nate nodded, and though he tried to keep his voice light, it came out pretty close to the clipped tone of a report. "Formula, two ounces at a time. I keep offering more, but he's usually not interested in any more than that. This morning he slept four hours and then ate a little more."
The doctor nodded again. "Well, he'll keep growing and keep changing. You just keep paying attention and I'm sure you'll do fine. Would you like to help me get him on the scale, here?"
Nate nodded and stepped forward, and Brad stayed in place, watching.
"Now," the doctor said casually, laying Linus on a scale and not looking at either of them, "biologically, Linus is...."
Nate jerked a little at that, and looked over at Brad, who raised his eyebrows. You didn't see this coming?
Nate blinked a couple of times but didn't obviously react to the assumption one way or the other. "He's mine. His mother and I were--we decided I should have full custody."
There was a second's pause where Nate didn't say something like Brad's just a friend. Before Brad could decide whether he wanted to fill it in himself--to say nothing of whether he'd be lying if he did--Nate went on, "She said she would forward a copy of her medical records from the pregnancy to your office for Linus's history, did you get those?"
"Yes, I believe we did, and I'll double-check when we're done here," the doctor said, getting Linus's diaper out of the way and waving Nate's hands off so he could look at the scale. "Pregnancy and delivery were normal?"
"Yes, no complications," Nate said, putting his hands into his pockets again. "Linus has been just fine all the way."
"Good, that's good to hear. Seven pounds, three ounces, that's a couple of ounces down from his birth weight, isn't it? That's expected at this point. Now let's check his length."
Nate helped hold Linus down while the doctor stretched his legs out straight, and that was when Linus woke up in a flurry of arm-waving and decided he wasn't into this.
"Hang on," Nate said softly, catching one of Linus's hands to hold. "Hang on, Linus, I've got you, you're all right."
"Twenty-one and a half," the doctor announced, "so he is growing even though his weight is down a little bit, that's just what we want to see. Nate, why don't you pick him up for me."
Nate did, gathering Linus up and rocking him until he was quiet and calm, and the doctor stepped in to measure Linus's head, talking soothingly to him--or possibly to Nate--the whole time, before proclaiming another measurement that he said was perfectly normal.
"Now we'll just test a few reflexes--" the doctor took Linus from Nate and took him over to the exam table, and Nate fell back to Brad's side. He still seemed calm, Brad thought, and of course that was when the doctor propped Linus up on the table and said, "Now, some parents find this one a little unsettling, but I assure you it's perfectly safe. We're just going to make Linus feel a little bit like he's falling."
Brad caught Nate's wrist at the same time that the doctor let Linus fall backward, and Linus's arms flew out sharply. Nate twitched forward, muscle going hard under Brad's grip, and then--probably realizing at the same time Brad did that the doctor's hand had been behind Linus's head and neck the whole time--he took a half step back, so that he was right at Brad's side. Brad didn't let go, and Nate didn't pull away.
"That looked good," the doctor said without looking over at them. "That's the Moro reflex, which makes a baby throw his arms out like that to try to grab you if he feels like he's in trouble. Unfortunately that one will be long gone by the time he's a teenager."
The doctor did some other stuff that looked less alarming--feet, hands, more prodding at Linus's head and at his belly, getting out the stethoscope and all of that. Brad kept still, holding on to Nate and listening to his steady breathing, trying not to think too much about anything or to let his attention wander past this moment, this room, and what he was doing right here.
The doctor asked Nate a few more questions, calm and casual, while peering into Linus's eyes and ears, and Nate's answers came pretty close to matching his tone, mostly light, just a little too quick to be perfectly calm.
The doctor fastened up Linus's diaper and turned back to face them, saying, "Okay, this is for you," as he offered the baby to Nate.
Brad didn't let go quite quickly enough to avoid being seen, but the doctor didn't say anything. He passed Linus to Nate and then went over to the computer in the corner to enter some information. Nate, meanwhile, lifted Linus up against his shoulder, and Brad didn't really think twice before leaning over to look Linus in the eye and make sure Nate wasn't upset enough to set him off. Linus just blinked at him and then yawned.
"Good man," Brad said quietly.
Nate turned toward him even as Brad turned away, shuffling through the stack of Linus's clothes to find the onesie and socks to put on first. By the time Brad straightened up Nate had turned Linus around so his feet were sticking out; they looked kind of pink and cold, so Brad put the socks on first, even though it was strange to be putting them on without tucking the horseshoe underneath.
He'd just finished and was strategizing how to get Linus into the onesie without making Nate put him down when the doctor said, "So it looks like Linus is doing great, but what about you guys? He's waking up every two hours, that's got to be tough on you."
Nate was looking down at Linus, and he didn't look up when the doctor spoke. Brad couldn't see any reaction on him at all. Brad gave it another second, to be sure that Nate wasn't going to look up and offer some smooth, glib, prepared set of lies he wanted Brad to support, and then he stepped into the breach.
Brad looked over his shoulder with a smile for the doctor and said, "Well, I've only been doing it for three days, so I'm good. This is my vacation. Nate already had it down to a science by the time I showed up, I just stepped in to help for a while."
Brad glanced back at Nate, hoping that had been enough of a stall--or enough of a cue, if Nate had been really out of it--to get him ready to give some answer that would let them all get out the door in one piece.
Nate was looking up, now, but he was looking straight at Brad, searching his face for something. Brad looked back, eyebrows raised, and waited for Nate to get with the program.
"Nate?" the doctor prompted. "How has it been for you?"
Nate hesitated another second with his eyes on Brad's before he finally, finally redirected his attention where it belonged.
"Brad's been great," Nate said firmly. "Brad's been a huge help, I couldn't have asked for a better--"
Brad waited for the noun and did not look back toward the doctor. Nate looked away from them both and changed tacks, leaving whatever that might have been unsaid. His voice was lighter when he went on.
"The thing is, with or without Brad, I'm not doing very well."
Brad felt himself go cold and calm; the whole room took on a perfect clarity. He knew precisely where the doctor was standing, didn't have to turn his head, didn't even have to try to calculate his position. He knew Linus was still awake, squirming sleepily against Nate's shoulder, and he knew exactly how calm Nate was, because he was, too.
"I left the Marine Corps seven months ago," Nate said, shifting his grip on Linus, letting the doctor do the math. "It's been a little bit more than ten months since I last saw a dead child by the side of a road. For Linus's first ten days, I was so far under the surface I didn't understand that I had a problem--I thought this was just how things were going to be for me, having a kid, having been in combat. But since Brad's been here, I've realized I need help--more help, a different kind of help. I probably have PTSD, and whatever you call it, it's pretty bad. I had some symptoms before, but it's gotten worse since Linus was born. I don't think I've done anything to endanger him or anyone else yet, but I know that could very easily change if I don't get myself squared away soon."
Nate turned a little then and met Brad's eyes again, his previous calm swallowed up into a faint but distinct exhilaration. Looking at him, Brad could almost hear bullets flying around them. "Brad? Would you say that's a reasonable summary of the situation?"
Brad had never felt quite this ambushed even when being shot at. It took him a few seconds to shift mental gears enough to do what Nate was asking of him. He turned and looked at the doctor, who was giving them both a concerned but not especially surprised look, no sign of being out of his depth with this.
"I think Nate's view is pretty accurate. He's had a few bad mood swings, but he's kept it under control as far as Linus is concerned. He's hypervigilant. I realized pretty quickly when I arrived that Nate was having problems, but he was doing an excellent job of taking care of Linus, and he's continued to do so."
The doctor nodded slowly, and Brad stole a glance at Nate, who met his gaze and gave him a short, sharp nod.
"Now, Nate," Dr. Lee said, drawing Brad's attention back, "you say that you've recognized your symptoms as PTSD, and Brad, you also sound like you're familiar with the warning signs--I assume you've both been taught to recognize those symptoms?"
Brad nodded along with Nate.
"I'll skip the brochures, then. Nate, it sounds like you qualify for VA treatment, but I assume there's a reason you're telling me and not the VA's intake process." He glanced quickly between Brad and Nate, but didn't make the point out loud.
"I decided last night that I needed help," Nate said briskly, once again totally ignoring the implication. "I'm telling you because I'm not going to conceal my condition from people who have a reason to know it. You asked how I was doing, and that's my answer."
"I'm concerned about the amount of time you could spend waiting for treatment if you do go through the VA," Dr. Lee explained. "If seeking private care is an option...?"
"Just give me a few minutes, I'll make some calls. I refer new parents for help on a pretty regular basis, Nate, and I believe I can find you someone who has experience dealing with veterans. I'll try to find a doctor who can see you within the next couple of days. You're doing the right thing in asking for help, and I think if you follow through on this, you and your family are going to be fine."
"Thanks," Nate said, and the doctor gave Brad a look almost as inscrutable as the one Nate had turned on him a few minutes ago, and then let himself out of the room.
"Okay," Nate said. "Okay, Brad, could you."
Brad turned and took Linus as Nate held him out, tucking Linus half under his fleece again. Once he had the baby settled, Brad held absolutely still while Nate stared through the wall.
"Okay," Nate repeated to no one, and then he backed up a step and sat down hard on top of Linus's clothes, his elbows dropping onto his knees and his head into his hands. Brad stood looking down at him for a couple of seconds; he watched the shaking start at Nate's hands, watched it hit his shoulders and dissolve into full-body shivering as the adrenaline dropped him like a rock. Because that had been an engagement with, if not exactly the enemy, definitely something unknown and dangerous. Nate had willed himself through it with the same cool detachment he'd shown while dodging bullets, but there was a price to pay on the other side.
Brad looked down at Linus--blinking sleepily against his chest--and then he stepped around Nate and sat down beside him, because he couldn't stand to keep watching this and pretending that he was only here to help with the kid.
He leaned his shoulder into Nate's, first, but that didn't seem to register with Nate. Brad put his free arm around Nate's shoulders, then, tugging him in close. For a couple of breaths he stayed rigid, just vibrating in Brad's grip; Brad could hear the plastic back of the chair rattling quietly against the wall.
Then Nate pushed closer. He was curled down so far that the top of his head was against Brad's collarbone. Brad felt an instant rush of something better than adrenaline--relief and pleasure and something beyond words--at the feeling of Nate finally, finally being willing to lean on him like this. Whatever it meant, and despite the surrounding circumstances being just as bad as they had always been for as long as he'd known Nate, it felt good to have him here.
Brad tucked his own head down, his forehead against Nate's hair. "Okay, Nate. Okay."
Nate elbowed him a little, uncurling one arm, but he didn't reach for Linus, who was hidden between their bodies. Nate reached under Brad's unzipped fleece and grabbed a fistful of Brad's t-shirt, pulling it tight against his ribs.
Brad closed his eyes and turned his head slightly, pressing his lips to the back of Nate's head. "Yeah. I've got you."
"For now," Nate said, and his voice was almost steady, just a little muffled for being spoken more or less into Nate's lap, down under the tangle of their bodies.
"Ten more days of leave," Brad agreed, because that was the simplest answer and the one he should have mentioned before now. "Nine until I should be on a plane back. I'm all yours for now."
Nate nodded against Brad's chest.
"Out of curiosity," Brad said, not bothering to try to sound less serious than he was. "Did you sleep at all last night?"
Nate let out a huge breath, shakier at the end than at the beginning, and shook his head against Brad's chest. That was about what Brad had been expecting, and he let himself think of it as a problem he could solve. Nate would need to sleep when they got back to the apartment. Brad would lie beside him for a while, maybe, until he was sure Nate was really sleeping....
Nate pushed away, and Brad let him go. Nate twisted to scrub his face against his arm and then straightened up, blinking at Brad.
"I should tell you," Nate said, holding Brad's gaze. He sounded rehearsed again, but it wasn't coming out evenly anymore.
Brad just nodded, firmed his grip on Linus, and braced himself.
"Even after--even after I told you last night, I wasn't sure I was going to do this this morning. Maybe call someone, maybe--I didn't know. I hadn't decided yet."
Nate looked away--let himself look away, that was obvious. Brad shifted closer to him, and Nate didn't pull away, but didn't look at him again, either. "I was lying there listening to you and Linus sleeping, and I was thinking about what I could have done if you hadn't--if something had set me off like that and you weren't there to keep me in line. If I'd gotten angry at Linus. And I knew I could have hurt him, and I knew if I did I should give him up, someone should take him away from me. I should be begging someone to take him, if I hurt him."
Nate was looking everywhere but right at Linus, and Brad couldn't look away from what he could see of Nate's face. He was miles away, back in the dark, back inside his own head.
"And I realized that if I lost him, if I had to give him up, I would kill myself. Not that I would want to, or that it seemed like a smart choice, just--if Linus was gone I would kill myself, QED. And that's--that's not--I can't live like that. Literally. I can't live like that."
"Not for long," Brad agreed, pleased to hear his voice come out dry and cool.
Nate did look at him then, startled into a genuine grin.
Brad shrugged a little, tilting his head. It was true, and it was about the only thing he was qualified to say on the topic.
"Not for long," Nate repeated, and his voice wobbled and cracked on the last word, his grin widening too much to hold the shape of the word. He started laughing and slumped back in his seat, head against the wall as he cackled, venting pressure like a teakettle.
Brad looked down at Linus, who blinked up at him and flailed with one arm as if demanding that that weird new noise stop. Brad wondered if he had ever heard Nate really laugh before now. He shifted Linus up against his chest, rubbing one hand over his back to soothe him, and kept his eyes on Nate.
After the first couple of minutes Nate slumped over again, dropping his head into his hands, the hysterical hyena-laugh settling down into waves of giggles that came and went with his breath.
The door opened, and Brad glanced up to see Dr. Lee standing there holding a business card. He raised his eyebrows, and Brad shrugged.
The doctor nodded, stepped inside just far enough to hold out the card to Brad, and mouthed take your time as Brad reached for it. Brad waited until the door had closed behind him to reach over and slide the card under Nate's fingers.
Once again Brad drove them back to Nate's apartment, but this time whenever he checked over his shoulder, Nate was staring out the window in a more or less fixed direction--not, Brad thought, that he wasn't trying to monitor his sector, but that he was too drained to actually do it.
Nate carried Linus inside, and went straight into the bedroom with him. Nate laid him in the crib and then sat down and folded over to take off his shoes. Brad followed him as far as the bedroom doorway and decided not to mention that Linus was due to eat again in about twenty minutes. Nate could be asleep by then, and Brad wasn't going to stand in the way of that.
Nate turned to look over at Brad instead of just flopping down once he had his shoes off. "You just going to stand there and watch?"
Brad smiled a little and shrugged. "I'm pretty good at it."
Nate nodded, parted his lips, and then pressed them together. He shifted his arms and started to brace himself back up to his feet, concentrating like he had a couple of hundred pounds on his shoulders. Brad moved before Nate had gathered himself to do it, dropping down to sit beside him as Nate subsided.
"Thank you," Nate said quietly, looking him steadily in the eye. "For everything."
Brad nodded. There were a few dozen guys he'd have done the same for, and he knew Nate had a similar roster. It wouldn't have meant the same thing with any of them, and he hadn't had any reason to drop in on any of them to find out he was needed. He didn't want Nate's gratitude, but he couldn't brush this off as insignificant, either.
"I know we have to talk," Nate said. "I know I owe you an explanation, and I don't know exactly what you want from me or what you need, or whether it's possible. I'm in no state to process anything right now."
Brad shrugged, even as a hope welled up in him that he couldn't hold down; if Nate wanted to talk about it, then Nate wasn't dismissing the possibility out of hand, despite the way everything had changed. "I think the fact that I'm here and you haven't kicked me out covers most of it."
Nate gave a fleeting smile even as he shook his head. Of course Nate was going to be difficult, of course he was going to insist on talking and negotiating and respecting everyone's feelings and making sure everyone was in their right minds and--
Nate swayed toward him and Brad put up a hand to brace him, and before he'd realized that Nate hadn't just fallen asleep on him, Nate's hand was on his jaw, guiding him into a kiss. It was just that for a few seconds, just the fact of a kiss, a dry press of lips to get them across that particular line. Then Brad hauled Nate closer and Nate threw an arm around Brad's neck. Their mouths opened in sync and Nate pushed into the kiss, licking into Brad's mouth.
Brad held on to him and let him lead, and Nate was halfway onto Brad's lap by the time he lifted his head and said, "Is this okay? Can we just come back to the rest of it later?"
"No," Brad said, aware that he was breathing too hard to carry off the deadpan and way past giving a fuck. "I'm going to file a sexual harassment complaint."
"Too late," Nate said, "I'm not your CO anymore. You're just going to have to screen my calls and convince all your friends to hate me like a normal person."
"I'm actually on very good terms with all my exes," Brad said. "Although not--" he tugged Nate into another kiss, "quite--this--" and then Nate didn't let him back up to say anything else.
Nate leaned into him harder and harder until Brad collapsed backward. Nate stretched out over him, barely pausing in kissing him, though the kisses were unhurried. Nate's weight held him down, but Nate wasn't deliberately applying any force; he'd finally collapsed and Brad happened to be in the way.
It wasn't much of a surprise to Brad when Nate broke off a kiss to yawn, but Nate laughed at himself a little as he did it. "Sorry. I'm not going to be good for much."
"Both shocking and disappointing," Brad murmured. "I was definitely under the impression that you were about to tear my clothes off and fuck me through the mattress."
Nate squirmed a little and kissed Brad again; he didn't hate that idea, Brad thought. He might hate how patently impossible it was right now, which would make two of them. The next time Nate came up for air, Brad took charge, tipping onto his side and dragging Nate up the bed until he had his head on a pillow. They could share one now, and curling into each other took care of the problem of fitting on the bed together.
Nate raised his head to look over Brad's shoulder to Linus's crib, and Brad didn't bother looking back before he said, "He's fine, Nate. He'll cry when he needs me, and you're going to get some sleep."
"Yeah," Nate said, and went limp against Brad, asleep almost instantly.
Brad stayed awake a little longer, listening to both of them breathing. He tried not to think of the obvious consequence of getting what he wanted, which was that he immediately had to start worrying about losing it. But not yet, because Nate was in no condition to have that conversation. For a while longer, Brad could lie here and imagine that the thing everyone else saw was true, that Nate and Linus were his to protect, that they could be his to come home to.
For now, Nate had said, and once Brad remembered that the words wouldn't stop echoing in his head. For now.
He had just dozed off when Linus woke him up.
Nate slept into the midafternoon, and then came out of the bedroom with the card Dr. Lee had given him in his hand. He found his phone and shut himself in the bathroom with it. Brad wrote the time down in the logbook; when Nate came out five minutes later and said, "Tomorrow, seventeen hundred," Brad had already put the pen away. All he'd needed to record for today was N scheduled appointment for PTSD treatment.
"That calls for pizza, doesn't it?" Brad said.
Nate dropped onto the couch beside Brad and leaned across him to kiss the baby. Linus had been waiting patiently for Brad to go back to reading to him, but made a little happy-sounding noise when Nate said, "Hey, buddy, how's Brad treating you?"
Nate nodded solemnly to Linus's answer and then straightened up enough to kiss Brad, as chastely as was necessary when Brad had his hands full of baby.
"Not going to ask how he's been treating me?" Brad asked. "Because you'll notice the washer's running and I'm wearing completely different clothes than I was this morning."
"You've been very brave, Staff Sergeant," Nate agreed. He gave Brad a slightly more rewarding kiss, and then leaned against Brad's shoulder and ordered the pizza.
He gave slightly slurred corrections to Brad's pronunciations of Greek names when Brad went back to reading, and didn't otherwise move until there was a knock at the door.
That made him jump a little and sit up straight, but he didn't otherwise go on alert, and he accepted Linus when Brad handed him over and went to find his wallet.
Nate stayed on the couch with Brad and Linus, reading and watching TV, but Brad could see him winding tighter with every hour that passed. After ten he wouldn't touch the baby anymore, and at eleven he moved over to his desk and focused on the laptop. A little before midnight, Brad got up and said, "I'm going to bed, you want me to take him with me?"
Nate looked up and gave a single sharp nod, and Brad decided against trying for a kiss goodnight. When he looked back from the hallway, Nate had turned on CNN.
Around three, Brad took Linus to the kitchen for a bottle, and Nate was right where Brad had left him; Brad didn't spot the tears on his face until he came back out to sit on the couch while Linus had his bottle. Nate didn't seem to be aware of them; he was staring ferociously into his laptop. Brad watched a drop fall from his jaw and decided against the couch.
He crouched down next to Nate's desk, in his line of sight, and waited for Nate to spot him. It took a couple of minutes, and then Nate blinked owlishly at him before he turned away and rubbed his face hard against his arm. When he came back up, he was staring at his laptop again, deliberately not looking at Brad this time.
"Come to bed soon," Brad said quietly. "I'm not going back to sleep until you're there."
Nate didn't look at him, but he nodded. Brad stood up and walked away.
He sat on the edge of the bed in the dark with Linus, listening to the familiar wet sounds of him drinking, watching the TV light flicker against the wall. By the time he had Linus ready to sleep again, he still hadn't heard a sound from Nate's direction. He laid the baby down in his crib and stretched out on the bed, tucking his hands behind his head and staring at the ceiling.
He only waited about two minutes before the TV turned off, leaving the apartment dark. He heard Nate walk to the front door and check the locks, and then Nate came into the bedroom. He undressed to his boxers and lay down on the far side of the bed from Linus, head on his own pillow, arms crossed over his chest.
Brad rolled onto his side and slung an arm over Nate's belly, spreading his fingers across the bare skin of Nate's side. Even there, he could feel the tension humming through him. Brad shifted his fingers in small movements over Nate's skin, waiting for Nate to react, waiting to acclimate himself to the reality of being able to reach out and touch Nate like this.
Nate didn't pull away, which seemed like a good enough sign. Brad made his own voice dry and calm when he spoke. "Suggestion."
"I am really not in the mood," Nate said flatly, but he still didn't push Brad's hand away.
Brad slid his hand down to the top of Nate's boxers and felt the muscles tense under his hand. "Good, because I wasn't really planning on rose petals and piano music. I was planning on getting you off so you might be able to get some sleep, so I might be able to get some sleep. If you think it's too soon to let me put my hand in your panties, go rub one out in the head, but I really think it'll be more fun for both of us if you let me give you a hand."
"You do know how to sweet-talk," Nate muttered, but that still wasn't anything like no.
Brad waited. This wasn't about what he wanted. This was about taking care of Nate. He could wait all night to do that.
Nate unfolded his arms and started to push up onto his elbows--not sitting up, but looking past Brad, so Brad moved his hand up to hold Nate down.
"The guy in the next bed is sleeping," Brad said firmly, quietly but not bothering to whisper. It wasn't necessary. "Unless you're a hell of a lot noisier than I think you are, we don't have a problem."
Nate let out a shaky breath and slung his arm over his face. Brad closed the gap between their bodies, pressing up against Nate's side and slinging one leg over Nate's. There was no mistaking the way Nate shuddered at the skin contact; the echoing shiver that shook Brad could have been just sympathy.
"Been a while since anybody else touched you?" Brad breathed beside Nate's ear.
"Been a while since I did," Nate muttered, sounding too strained to be sheepish.
"Well, then." Brad slid his hand back down Nate's chest to his boxers and tugged them down. Nate arched up to let Brad get them off. Brad dragged his hand back up the inside of Nate's thigh to his balls, cupping them for a second before he got his hand on Nate's half-hard cock. Nate made a tiny sound, sharply cut off, and shifted his arm down from covering his eyes to cover his mouth.
Brad kept his hand still and pressed his mouth to Nate's shoulder, the top of his arm, and felt Nate getting harder against his palm. He rocked his hand, letting Nate push up against it in little shivers, listening carefully.
When he'd counted a hundred, Brad said, "You have to breathe or I have to stop, Nate."
Nate's arm shot down fast, and he dragged in a breath as his hand landed on top of Brad's, pressing Brad's fingers closed around his cock. "Don't you fucking dare."
Brad made a wordless noise of agreement, all his concentration on jerking Nate off as slowly as he could bear. He had his hand on Nate for the first time, had Nate pressed up against him and shaking apart. There were limits to Brad's conscious control over this situation.
Nate's hand shifted to his wrist, urging him on faster.
Brad pressed his mouth against Nate's shoulder, this time with a scrape of teeth, as he put all the finesse he could into a handjob while his wrist was in a vise-grip. That took enough concentration that he almost managed not to grind his own hard-on against Nate's hip, but it wasn't long before Nate's hand let go of his wrist and fumbled toward Brad's underwear.
"Nate, you don't--"
"Shut the fuck up," Nate said, too breathless to sound as authoritative as usual, rolling onto his side and bringing both hands to bear on the problem of getting Brad naked while Brad's hand was still moving on his dick. "I don't need your combat jack, I need you."
Brad grinned even as he moved enough to let Nate yank his boxers down. Nate took advantage of the shift in position--and Brad's speechlessness as he considered his dizzying array of options for retorts--to shove Brad onto his back and climb on top of him.
Leaning down into a kiss, Nate added, "In a purely sexual sense, asshole, didn't I tell you to shut up?"
Brad let his grin disappear under Nate's mouth and didn't think about how every single part of that was such a transparent lie that it was practically the truth. He pushed his cock up against Nate, and Nate squirmed around, grinding down on him, until they were lined up, rutting against each other. Brad pushed up on one elbow to keep kissing Nate, throwing his other arm around Nate's neck to hold him down.
Nate whispered filthy, frantic curses into Brad's mouth and came first. Brad figured that meant that there was no loss to his dignity in lasting barely a minute longer, his cock sticky-wet with Nate's come, Nate's weight pressing down hot all over him while Nate pressed open-mouthed kisses along his jaw and down his throat.
Brad bit his lip as he came--Nate had told him to shut up, and even if he hadn't it was no time to let any of the things he wanted to say come rushing out. He lay dazed in the dark, stunned as much by the sensation of thorough happiness as by the orgasm, until Nate's thumb pressed against his mouth, against his teeth where they dug into his lower lip.
"Breathe," Nate said into Brad's shoulder, giving no apparent consideration to his position directly on top of Brad's lungs. "And don't fucking hurt yourself."
I know, that's your job, Brad didn't say, and unclenched his teeth to kiss Nate's thumb instead.
A couple of hours later, Brad was sitting on the edge of the bed feeding Linus his bottle. Nate, who had woken up enough to mumble worriedly when Brad got up, was sleeping now that Brad and Linus were back in the room. He was snoring as he sprawled across the bed with one hand on Brad's hip, and Brad didn't even try to be disgusted with himself for finding the sound somewhere between reassuring and adorable.
Brad reached over to the night stand and grabbed his phone, flipped it open one-handed, and tapped out a text message to Ray.
When you say not in front of the baby, what do you think about over to one side?
The phone buzzed while Brad was burping Linus. He picked it up to check after he'd put the baby down.
Fucking disgusting in every possible way, was the message waiting for him. As he read it, another message arrived.