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Accidentally in Love

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It’s Monday morning, 5:45, and Brad’s alarm goes off, playing "Come Sail Away" at top volume on his alarm clock. He rolls over in bed, presses his face to the pillows for a few seconds, and then he rolls back the way he came, sitting up and stretching and scratching at his head. He throws back the covers, stands on his good leg, and hops to the bathroom. He showers and shaves and brushes his teeth, and it’s only when he hops back into the bedroom that he finally looks at his prosthesis sitting next to the bed.

It’s an excellent prosthesis, top of the line and tricked out with every optional upgrade available. Brad doesn’t generally dip into his trust fund--no matter how often parents remind him it's his to do with as he wants--but he felt like if he’s going to be stuck with half a leg he can remove, he might as well have the cool one.

He sits on the edge of bed and stares at the prosthesis. He unwraps the towel from around his waist and looks down at his left leg, or what’s left of it anyway. It ends an inch above where his knee used to be, the scar tissue around his stump smooth and shiny.

Wear the leg or not; that’s the morning decision. It doesn’t take much to get on, never really has, and after a year on the thing, Brad’s gotten it down to a science. But there are some days just looking at it makes him feel like a failure.

What kind of a shitty Recon Marine hits a fucking IED?

Brad stands and hops to the dresser, pulls out a pair of khakis and pins the left pants leg into a tucked crease before sitting on the bed to pull them on. He gets a polo from the closet, grabs his phone off his nightstand and his iPod from his alarm clock dock, and walks down the hallway.

He has a protein bar and coffee for breakfast, sticks a water bottle in his backpack, slings the straps over his shoulders, then slides his wrists into his crutches and makes for the front door.

By 6:45, he’s down at the bus stop, headphones in and ignoring the woman three people down at the stop who can’t stop stealing glances. He’s on crutches, Brad thinks every time he catches someone looking. Why give a shit.

The bus comes, and Brad steps up first, flashing his bus pass at the driver.

"We give a discount to differently abled riders," the bus driver says. It’s not Brad’s usual driver, this one’s young and doesn’t know when to keep his mouth shut.

"I don't care," Brad snaps, and he works his way down the aisle in defiance, gets up the single stair to the back part of the bus, and sits in the very back row.

Three stops later, Ray drops next to him as he does every morning. "God, you are surly as fuck already," Ray greets. "Have a fight with your leg again?"

"Shut up, Ray."

"Fuck you, man. It is Monday, which sucks. It is cloudy, which sucks. And you’re already pissed off, which sucks." Ray squints at him. "Wait, didn’t you have a date last night?"

"Why, yes, Ray, I did, and as you can tell by my cheerful demeanor that you can’t shut up about, it was a delight."

Ray pulls a face and looks genuinely sympathetic. "Well, shit," he says. "So, no-go on the dick touching huh?"

"It was almost a full dick-touching mission, but then I mentioned the leg, and he got spooked."

"Then he’s not worth it, dude."

"Ray, have you ever found me attractive enough to want to fuck?"

"Not ever."

"Then shut up."

Ray does shut up, pulling a book from his bag and letting Brad stew. Brad glances at the book, some YA shit with a blue cover and a crudely drawn outline of a girl in a yellow dress. "You look like a child molester when you read those on the bus," he says.

"One, fuck you. Two, why is it glorified when women read YA but vilified when men do? Three, I told my sixth graders they could pick the next book if they all finished The Giver, and they picked this one. Four, fuck you."

"I cannot believe you are responsible for educating America’s youth."

"And I can’t believe you wear a branded polo shirt for the company where you IT. We’ve all got unbelievable shit in our lives, Bradley."

Brad shakes his head, puts his headphones back in, and looks out the window again. Sometimes, he can’t believe he’s friends with Ray, but they met in Recon training and meeting in Recon training is kind of a forever kind of thing, and then Ray was his RTO, and then Ray separated at four years, and Brad settled in for his long haul plans of making a military career.

And then OIF and his driver hitting a fucking IED in the road, and here he is, a year later, working IT for a security firm and sitting next to this asshole on the bus as he reads something called Stargirl.

It wouldn’t even be too bad, he thinks, if he could meet someone who looked at him and saw him and not just where his leg disappears.

Brad gets to work at 7:45 and spends three hours scowling at code and letting his phone go to voicemail (first thing in the morning, it’s always people who think their e-mail is loading slowly or who forgot they turned off their computers the night before). At 10:45, Brad stands, stretches, gets on his crutches, and goes two blocks over to the coffeeshop.

Trust Your Dharma should be a hippie bullshit sort of place based on the name, but it’s not. The first time Brad had decided to chance it, he’d been expecting incense and patchouli oil and tiny tables and chairs scrawled with inspirational horseshit quotes. It is, instead, a large, wide room full of perfectly falling apart couches, armchairs, and some tables and chairs, but the chairs are all extra-padded, and the tables are solid wood with no sayings other than what customers have--at the owner’s insistence--carved into them themselves.

"Brother!" Rudy greets Brad when he walks in. The mid-morning crowd is sparse, as always, though judging from the smells coming from the kitchen, lunch is going to be delicious. "Not up for the clicking today? That’s cool. Crutches let you get a nice upper body work out just doing your day to day stuff. That’s smart."

"You talk like a goddamn motivational speaker," Brad says.

"Sometimes people need motivation," Rudy replies. Rudy’s a total granola-munching, free spirit weirdo, but he’s also six-four, built like a goddamn brick wall, and makes the best espresso in the city, in Brad’s not-humble-and-fuck-you-for-questioning-him opinion. Brad had thought the whole thing was an act when he’d first started coming in, but Rudy’s never wavered from his verbal hugging of everyone who comes in, and Brad’s been coming here for a year.

"What’s on for lunch?" Brad asks.

"Pap, what’s for lunch?" Rudy calls back to the open air kitchen. Pappy is Rudy’s chef. Where Rudy’s built oversized like an action figure, Pappy’s wiry. Where Rudy talks like a self-help book, Pappy gives inscrutable advice with a grin that says he knows he’s fucking with you.

"Well, it was gonna be the best damn chicken salad in town, but Rudy didn’t lay out the chicken like I asked him to when we closed last night!" Pappy yells back.

"I’m sorry, Pap!" Rudy replies.

"Rudy, you ain’t got no goddamn common sense!"

"I know, brother!" Rudy delivers it lightly, grinning with his whole face lit up.

"Seriously," Brad says, "How are you two not just dating and eloping already?"

"No need to rush to a different relationship when we’ve got a great one going now," Rudy says, still smiling. "Life is about finding peace within yourself and a happiness to carry you along."

"And coffee," Brad says before Rudy can philosophize further. "Extra-large--"

"With an espresso shot," Rudy finishes. "I’ll bring it out when it’s ready."

"All right," Brad agrees and moves to go sit on one of the couches. He sinks down and rests his right leg on the top of his left stump, putting his crutches on the floor next to the couch. He rubs at his eyes and can’t help but think about last night’s date and how the guy had fucking rabbited just because Brad lifted his pant leg and shown him the bottom of his prosthesis. Like it’s new or weird for someone to have a fake leg.

"Um, excuse me."

Brad opens his eyes and looks up at a guy holding a laptop cord. "Yeah?" he asks.

"Hey. I was wondering if you could plug me in," the guy says. "There’s a socket right next to you, and I was gonna sit there," he points to the armchair perpendicular to the couch.

Brad looks around the coffee shop. It’s still as mostly empty as it was when he walked in. "You can’t sit somewhere else?"

The guy’s mouth twists into something that’s trying not to be a grimace at his tone. "It’s my favorite chair," he says. "Don’t worry," he adds, and the grimace fades into an arch look. "I’m not going to talk to you. You don’t look that interesting."

Brad huffs a laugh and holds out a hand for the cord. He twists around to plug it in, and when he twists back, he catches the guy staring at his leg. "What?" he asks, maybe a shade or three angrier than he really needs to be.

The guy’s eyes snap up to his face. He doesn’t look embarrassed or guilty like Brad was expecting because that’s what he usually gets. "I thought you had your leg tucked under you," the guy says, so matter-of-fact Brad deflates immediately. "Just took me a second to process, is all. Thanks for the plug in."

He sits in the chair, opens his laptop, and immediately falls into work. Rudy comes over with Brad’s coffee and grins at the guy. "Nate, my man, good to see you. Haven’t been in in awhile. How you been? You good, brother?"

"I’m good, Rudy," Nate says with a smile. "Just busy this term. I got a TA position, so I’m pretty swamped all the time."

"Prof Wynn was in the other day, said he’d scooped you up. You liking it all right?"

"Yeah. Wynn’s a good guy. I’m learning a lot."

"Good to hear." Rudy says, and he walks back to the counter.

Nate goes back to his work, and Brad sits and sips his coffee, staring out the big picture window and occasionally glancing at Nate. He’s good looking, Brad decides. His ears stick out a little, but it takes the edge off the general "hot blonde with bright blue eyes" thing he has, makes him look more approachable.

"Okay, what is it?" Nate asks, looking up from his computer. "You keep looking at me."

"No, I don’t," Brad replies.

Nate grins again, and it changes his whole face, makes him look even better. "Yeah, you do," Nate says. "I don’t mind," he adds. "You’re completely my type."

Brad doesn’t have an answer for that. He takes a long drink of his coffee. "I don’t really have a type," he says once he’s swallowed. "But I’m flattered."

Nate snorts. "Yeah, because you don’t hear that all the time."

"I don’t, actually," Brad says. "I’m an IT nerd missing a leg."

"Well, all the people not trying to pick you up just for that are missing out." Nate presses his mouth shut, looks down, and blushes, his cheeks and the tips of his ridiculous ears flushing pink. "Um. Wow. I don’t usually do this."

"What? Cruise total strangers at Rudy’s?"

"Or anywhere, really." Nate stares at his computer for a few seconds, types a word or two, then looks at Brad, who hasn’t looked away from him. "So. Hi. Nate Fick. Grad student in Classics, specifically studying war narratives through the eons."

"Brad Colbert. IT asshole for Steeltrap Security. Been an amputee just over a year."

Nate looks at Brad’s leg. "So, still sort of focused on it, huh?"

"Lose half a leg then talk to me about what I should be focused on."

Nate cocks his head. "You could be focused on getting my phone number, you know. That’s pretty good."

Brad blinks. When he opens his eyes again, Nate’s grinning, confident and good-looking and a fucking Classics student. "All right. How do I get your number?"

"You could look pleased to be possibly getting it. You’re sort of scowling."

Brad laughs, his face settling in a grin, and Nate stares at him intently for a moment. "What?"

"Christ, you are attractive," Nate says.

"Not the only one," Brad replies.

Nate chuckles and reaches into his pocket, pulling out his wallet. He pulls out a business card and holds it out to Brad. "See, that wasn’t so hard."

Brad takes the card and gets out his wallet to give one in return. "So, you here a lot during the week? I can basically work from anywhere."

"Trying to get back in the habit of being here," Nate says. "I like it here. Company’s good."

"Yeah," Brad agrees. Their fingers touch as he hands Nate his card. Brad’s tempted to stroke his hand, but he holds back. "It’s not bad."

Brad goes back to the office, does the proper amount of work to not look like a slacker, and leaves ten minutes to five to catch the bus back to his place. Ray’s already on, having taken the window seat because he’s a motherfucker. Brad drops in the seat next to him and tosses his crutches in Ray’s lap. "Be a good bitch and carry those."

"Fuck you."

"I’m your Team Lead, Person."

"Not anymore you’re not, dickface." Ray gathers up Brad’s crutches and sets them upright between them. "Why are you in a good mood? This is creepy, and I don’t care for it."

"No reason," Brad replies. Ray narrows his eyes, and Brad knows he’s sunk.

"Oh my god, did you meet a young man, Bradley?"

"Shut up, Ray."

"Is he handsome? You’re good enough to not go for some ugly bastard."

"Ray--"

"And here you were, thinking you’d never get laid again."

"Ray!" A couple of people turn to look at them. Brad glares at them until they turn back around.

Ray shrugs when Brad turns the glare on him. "Dude, I’m not the one who can’t keep a straight face when there might be someone willing to date me."

"No one is willing to date you. You’re a sub-human, inbred fuck who is somehow allowed to impart your minimal knowledge of how to cook squirrel innards to impressionable young minds."

"And they pay me shit-all for it," Ray agrees. He thumps the side of his fist against Brad’s bicep. "But seriously, you met a dude, right?"

Brad feels himself grin. "Yeah."

"Where? When? Not in that sad little room they call your office. That lighting makes you look like Frankenstein."

"At Dharma," Brad says. "I went in for my mid-morning crack fix, and he was there."

"And what is his name, Bradley?" Ray asks, putting his chin in his hands. If they weren’t on the bus, Brad is certain Ray would kick his feet like a teenage girl just to be a shit.

"Nate," Brad says. "Nate Fick."

"Look at you!" Ray says. "Meeting boys at the gayest coffee shop in town!"

"It is not the gayest--"

"Have they fucked yet?"

Brad sighs. "No, but they bickered like a goddamn married couple again."

"Of course," Ray says and throws up his hands. They fall into silence. As they near Ray’s stop, he doesn’t move to get up.

"You are not coming to my place," Brad says.

"Yeah, I am," Ray replies. "And I’m gonna sing at the top of my lungs until you nut up and call this guy and set up a date."

"I don’t need a wingman."

"Yes, you do." Ray says.

Brad considers arguing. He also considers that the last time he tried to do that, Ray started singing on the bus. "You’re paying for takeout."

"What kind of a shitty date are you?" Ray winces when Brad looks away from him. "Joke, dude. Just a joke."

Brad clenches his jaw. "I haven’t gotten laid since I lost my leg, Ray. So, shut up."

"Shutting up," Ray says.

They don’t speak until they’re in Brad’s apartment. Ray dropping his bag to the floor as Brad sets his crutches aside and hops to the couch. "Call him," Ray says. "Right now."

"I just got off work, Ray. That looks desperate."

"You are desperate." Ray walks into the kitchen and comes out with two beers, tossing one to Brad before dropping into Brad’s armchair. "And this guy gave you his number after meeting you for like ten minutes. So, you know, call that. Date that. Fuck that."

"Your motivational speeches are always a gem. Your students must love them."

"Nah, but the new shop teacher thinks I’m awesome."

"Trying to get me laid, Ray. Focus."

Ray drinks down half his beer then gestures towards Brad with his bottle. "Then call him, motherfucker."

Brad takes his phone out of his pocket and gets Nate’s card from his pocket. "What if he runs scared, Ray?"

"We’ll fuck him up," Ray says. "We’ll fuck him up Recon style."

Brad shakes his head at Ray’s promise and dials Nate.

"Nate Fick," Nate answers.

"Hey," Brad says. "This is Brad, from the coffee shop."

"Tall, blonde, and cute when he smiles?" Nate asks.

"Sure," Brad replies, relaxing at Nate’s teasing tone. "If that’s how you want to picture me."

"What’s up?" Nates asks. There’s the sound of a horn honking. "Fuck you, buddy! I’m a pedestrian!"

"Wow, the mouth on you," Brad says. Across from him, Ray mimes sucking a cock. Brad flips him the bird. "Um, anyway, thought I’d call you and see if you want to--" Brad looks at Ray, suddenly at a loss.

"Lunch, you dumbass," Ray hisses. "People have lunch."

"Lunch," Brad says.

"I can hear your wingman," Nate says.

"Uh--"

"Kind of endearing, super-hot guy like you needing guidance. Can you do lunch on campus tomorrow? I can meet you in the union. The food sucks, but the company’s pretty good."

"Yeah. Sure," Brad agrees. Ray pumps a fist in the air and splashes beer down his arm. Brad rolls his eyes at him. "What time?"

"One?"

"I can do one."

"Great." Nate chuckles. "Really glad you called first. I was wondering if calling you tonight would be a bit much."

"Well, glad to have appeased your worries."

"Yeah. Hey, I have to flip off the bus that just left without me. See you tomorrow?"

"Sure, yeah. Bye."

"Bye." Brad disconnects the call, tosses his phone onto the next cushion, and looks at Ray.

"Holy shit, you almost sounded smooth," Ray says. "Well done."

"Fuck you, order some Thai,"

Ray laughs and pulls out his own phone. "Good job," he says as he dials. "You didn’t even sound a little bit terrified."

"I would throw my beer bottle at you, but I need to finish it."

"Good priorities," Ray replies and puts in the food order.

*

Brad spends five minutes the next morning staring at his prosthesis. He hates that he does it. He has made a point to spend no more than one minute each morning deciding whether or not he wants to strap it on his leg.

Nate saw him without it yesterday and still hit on him, Brad thinks, so going without isn’t going to shock him. But wearing it will make it easier to get to campus on time to meet him for lunch. But what if Nate has questions or can’t stop staring at it?

Brad clicks on his radio and waits through the end of some screechy song for the weather update. "Partly cloudy, 70% chance of rain, high in the--"

Brad clicks off the radio and reaches for his prosthesis. The chance of rain is high enough he’d rather not be on his crutches anyway. At least, that’s what he tells himself as he rolls the protective sock over his stump and straps himself in. When he stands and walks, he can hear the clicking of the joint where his knee is supposed to be. It makes him grimace as he puts on his rain coat and gathers up his stuff for the day.

Ray doesn’t speak to him when he gets on the bus, just gives the distinct bend of his leg a knowing look before flopping down next to him and pulling a book from his bag.

"What?" Brad asks, feeling prickly and uncomfortable.

"Nope," Ray says. "I am not talking to you pre-lunch date. You’re a mouthy pain in the ass, and I’ve gotta help with sex ed this afternoon. It’s gonna be hard enough not to roll my eyes at the horseshit parents feed their kids without dealing your attitude right now."

Brad shakes his head. "How the hell did you end up teaching sex ed?"

Ray rolls his eyes. "They want to be inclusive in their representation, and guess who’s the only half-gay on staff?"

Brad thinks about that for a minute. "So, the shop teacher wasn’t actually interested, huh?"

"Nope. Which means you need to get laid so one of us can pretend like we know what we’re doing with our dicks."

"I make no promises," Brad says, and the fact that Ray doesn’t snark back at him tells him he’s said it with more seriousness than he meant. He doesn’t try to fix it, just watches the city go by out the window, then gets off the bus at his stop and goes to work.

It’s system update day at work, and it’s a mostly automated process. Brad gets it running, fires a note off to his supervisor, packs his work laptop into his backpack, and goes to Dharma at nine instead of 10:45. Rudy greets him with a grin and a wave as he takes the order of a harried-looking woman Brad is certain is someone’s completely underpaid assistant.

"Brother!" Rudy greets when Brad makes it to the counter. "On both feet today, I see."

"Yeah," Brad agrees.

"Good on you. Gotta take a break from those upper body workouts."

"How would you know?" Brad asks, and Rudy grins at him.

"Saw you make nice with Nate yesterday," Rudy says as he rings up Brad’s usual. "Should we expect a love connection?"

"Work on yours before you poke around in mine," Brad says. "You wait around much longer, someone’s going to snatch Pappy up before you know it."

"Not a chance!" Pappy calls from the kitchen. "I’m a bastard!"

"He’s not," Rudy says.

"You two are giving me a cavity," Brad says, and he takes his coffee and walks to a table. He logs onto his work laptop, answers a couple of emails, and then sits and stares out the window as his coffee goes from hot to cold.

"Knew it," Ray says as he drops across from Brad just after ten. "I knew you’d be sitting here brooding on the whole lunch date thing."

"Shouldn’t you be violating young minds?"

"Free period," Ray says. "And no lunch yard duty today, so I’ve got all kinds of time."

"I do not need a babysitter."

"Yeah, you do." Ray grins when Rudy brings over his drink. "Rude, my man, can you believe this asshole? Got himself a date, and all he can do is sit here a worry about it."

"Pappy says better to stare out the window than the holes in your own mind," Rudy replies.

Ray scrunches up his face. "I have no idea what that means."

"You'd have to have a mind first," Brad says. He chuckles when Ray tries to kick him under the table and nails his fake leg. "Serves you right," he says as Ray reaches down to rub at his foot. "Picking on a cripple."

"Bullshit," Ray says. "You hiked up a mountain with a broken ankle; you could easily do it on that thing if you wanted."

Before Brad can answer, the front door of Dharma opens, and Nate walks in. Brad checks his watch. It’s only ten after ten, not nearly time for lunch. Ray catches him staring, turns around, and nods approvingly. "Now that’s a hot date. Well done, Bradley."

"Ray--RAY!" Brad yells as Ray stands up and makes a beeline for Nate.

"Hi, Ray Person. Friend of Brad Colbert. I understand you’ll be taking young Mr. Bradley to lunch today."

Nate looks shocked for about two seconds, then he spots Brad looking horrendously embarrassed and murderous at his table. "You must be the wingman," he says.

"That’s me."

"Nice to meet you." Nate shakes Ray’s hand with as much solemnity as he can muster, then he walks over to Brad’s table and says, "Hey, I’m just popping in before my 10:30 class, but we’re still on for lunch, right?"

"Yeah," Brad says. "Sorry about him. He was socialized with Whiskey Tango inbred chickens for siblings. No real social skills."

"Whiskey Tango?" Nate asks.

"Military phonetic alphabet," Ray explains as he walks back over and picks up his coffee. "He’s calling me white trash."

"Oh," Nate says. He looks at Brad in a different way than before, calculating, putting something together. "You’re military?"

"Was," Brad says. He feels his stomach roll as Nate glances down at his left leg. "Lost it to an IED," he mutters.

"Oh," Nate says, but it’s different this time, holds more weight. He clears his throat and shifts his stance. "I wasn’t trying to--"

"I was military too, clearly," Ray interrupts, kicking Brad under the table and hitting his right leg this time. "Me and Brad, we met in Recon training. I was his RTO in Afghanistan."

"Oh," Nate says. "That's...I'm not sure of the adjective for that."

"Oh, look at the time," Ray says, standing again. "I must get back and leave you and Brad here to have a conversation without me."

"You sonofa--" is as far as Brad gets before Ray is completely out the door. Brad rubs his eyes and looks up at Nate, who’s still standing next to the table. "We were recon marines, me and Ray. I was team lead. He was our radio officer. He was also my driver in Afghanistan, and…" And sometimes Brad thinks Ray has stayed friends with him because Ray feels guilty Brad lost a leg when Ray wasn’t there to protect him. "And he got out after four because he’s scared of his mother," Brad says.

That makes Nate grin. "Having met him for fifteen seconds, that’s a story I’d like to hear."

"I’ll open with it over lunch," Brad says, surprised at how smooth he sounds. "Meet you at the union, right?"

"Yeah," Nate says. He smiles at Brad for a second, seeming to drink him in, and then he walks over to the counter, orders his drink, and leaves. When he goes, he waves, and Brad lifts a hand in return.

Brad drinks his cold coffee and surfs the internet until 11:30. When he stands up to leave, Rudy gives him an encouraging smile, and Brad is pretty sure if he doesn’t move quick he’s going to get hugged goodbye. "Later!" he calls, and hurries for the door.

Campus is three blocks away, and the sky goes from partly cloudy to a rolling dark gray in the time it takes Brad to get to the union. He steps inside just as the first raindrops come down and wishes he could turn around and deal with the weather rather than the sudden press of a whole fucking lot of college kids hurrying for lunch.

Crowds aren’t really something he’s done since he’s gotten back. He runs into them occasionally walking down the street or waiting for the bus, but he doesn’t seek them out, and now he’s surrounded by a huge crowd, and he needs a place to put his back to the wall before he does something that will freak people out.

"Hey."

Brad turns, and there’s Nate, just to his right. "Hi," he says.

"Good thing you’re tall as hell, or I never would have found you." Nate smiles, but it drops from his face as he takes in Brad. "You okay?"

"Big crowd," Brad says. "Just getting acclimated."

"Huh," Nate says. He glances around the union, then out the front doors, where the rain is coming down in sheets. "Come on," he says. He grabs Brad’s hand and pulls, and Brad’s not quick enough to ask him what he’s doing. They’re outside in the pouring rain for a few seconds, and then they’re under a small shelter with a round bench centered under a wooden roof.

Brad wipes the water from his face and looks at Nate, uncertain what to do. "I’d have been okay."

"You looked like you hated being in there. I figured out here was better. This spot is always empty when it rains like this."

"Barely covered from the rain is better than in there where the food is?" Brad asks.

Nate shrugs. "It’s all relative. The food may be in there, but I think it’ll be nicer out here. No one’s going to come out of the union until the rain slows down or they absolutely have to make a sprint to class, so for now, this is a pretty great place to be."

Brad doesn’t have an answer to that, and then he gets distracted at the raindrops that are sliding from Nate’s hair to his neck to under the collar of his shirt. "Wow, this is a good look for you," he says.

"Really? You into the drowned rat look?" Nate’s smile is teasing.

"Might be," Brad answers.

"You think it looks good on me, you should see you. You’re ripped."

Brad glances down at himself. He’s soaked to the skin, polo clinging to him, and yeah, the shape of his pecs and his abs and his upper arms is pretty obvious. But Nate’s in good shape, too, his t-shirt tight against his own skin, and it hits Brad low in the gut that he hasn’t had sex in over a year.

"Don’t look at me like that," Nate says as he licks his lips. "That’s the kind of look that gets a girl pregnant."

"You’re not a girl," Brad says. He drags his eyes up from staring at the place where Nate’s wet t-shirt sucks into his belly button and looks Nate in the face again. "So," he says, and he hears how much want is in his voice. "Lunch?"

Nate laughs, and it’s shaky. "Yeah," he says. "Lunch would be good." He looks around them. The rain is still coming down hard, and no one’s around. "But I’m in no mood to get re-soaked just for a shitty burger, so we may need to wait it out."

"However will be pass the time?" Brad murmurs, and he pauses before leaning down to kiss Nate, but Nate cranes his neck back, and Brad takes the invitation, pressing his mouth to Nate’s, sliding a hand just under the hem of Nate’s t-shirt.

"I should be asking you questions," Nate murmurs as he pulls away from Brad’s mouth and slides both hands up under Brad’s shirt. "What’s your family like. How’d you end up in IT. What’s your favorite color."

"Yellow," Brad answers, and he dips his head lower to suck a drop of water off the side of Nate’s neck. Nate sucks in a breath, and his fingernails dig into Brad’s sides.

"You are ungodly attractive, and I haven’t gotten laid since term started, and my apartment is a block away," Nate says as he strokes his fingers down Brad's abs.

"Thought you didn’t want to get re-soaked?" Brad asks, smiling against Nate’s ear.

"For bad food, no. For the chance to lick your abs? Absolutely yes." Nate bites down gently on Brad’s lower lip when Brad kisses him again. "But only if you want to."

"God, you have no idea how much I want to," Brad says, and he pulls away just far enough to look Nate in the face before grabbing his hand and squeezing. "Lead the way."

Nate gives Brad’s leg a quick look. "You can run on it, right?"

"Yeah," Brad says, and for once he doesn’t feel defensive. Nate’s looking at him like he’ll haul him into a fireman carry if it gets them to his apartment faster, and Brad flashes hot with want. "Oh, yeah."

They sprint for it, Nate laughing as they dodge around people, and Brad can’t help but grin as he follows along. They make it to Nate’s building in just a few minutes, and they’re soaked to the bone. Nate gets them in the front door with a passcode and onto an empty elevator, where he presses the button for floor 27.

"Must be a nice view," Brad says as he backs Nate against the wall.

"It’s pretty good," Nate replies, and Brad kisses him again, as hot and dirty as he knows how. Nate groans against his mouth, fists his hand in Brad’s polo, and spins them around so Brad’s the one pinned.

The elevator dings, the doors open, and there’s a gasp and someone shouting, "Nice!" and the doors close again, and the elevator keeps going up. "Good neighbors," Brad says.

"Shut up," Nate replies, and he cups Brad through his slacks and presses in as close as possible just as the light goes out on button 27. "God, the things I’m going to do to you."

"Cannot wait," Brad says, and he groans when Nate takes his hands away and steps away and leads him down the hall to apartment 273. Brad takes in a living room, a kitchen area, and a hallway before Nate presses him against the door and gets back to kissing him, his hand going back to cup Brad’s crotch, where his dick is officially straining against his slacks.

"Up against the wall or in bed?" Nate asks.

"Bed," Brad replies. He wants to see Nate all stretched out, find out how all his muscles look when he doesn’t have to concentrate on keeping himself upright.

Nate pulls him down the hall by his shirt, pushes him so Brad falls back on the bed and bounces, and immediately starts to work on Brad’s shoelaces.

"I can--" Brad says, but it’s too late. Nate’s got his left shoe off, and there’s a moment of complete stillness, as Nate looks at the so-called foot of Brad’s prosthesis.

"Do we need to take it off?" Nate asks, looking up at Brad as he pulls off Brad’s other shoe.

"Huh?" Brad asks.

"Your leg. Are you more comfortable with it on or off?"

It takes Brad a few seconds to come up with a response. By the time he does, Nate’s undoing his slacks and pushing them down over his hips. "I...I don’t know," Brad says. "I haven’t...I mean…"

Nate pauses, one hand stays at the zip of Brad’s slacks, the other comes up to cup his face. Nate smiles, sweet and soft, and he says, "What are you most comfortable with?"

"Off," Brad answers without thinking. "But let me do it."

"Sure," Nate agrees, and he pulls off Brad’s slacks and steps away to work on his own clothes as Brad leans over to unclasp his leg.

Brad’s hands shake, and he forces himself to take a deep breath and calm the fuck down. You are Recon, he thinks. Get your shit together, Colbert. His hands steady, and he gets the straps undone. He rolls over and places the prosthesis out of the way on the far side of Nate’s night stand. Nate pounces while he’s still on his stomach, curls in tight to his back and nibbles at his shoulder. "You want something?" Brad asks, and he laughs when Nate presses his dick--hard and hot and god, Brad can’t wait to get it in his mouth--against the small of his back.

"A few things," Nate replies. He slides a hand down Brad’s front, curls his fingers around Brad’s dick, and starts to jack him off. "Any phobias I should know about?"

"Only that I’ll come way too soon if you keep that up," Brad says. He reaches back with one hand, gets it cupped around the back of Nate's head, and they kiss sloppy and off-center as Nate keeps jerking him off. "I’m gonna suck your dick until you can’t move," Brad promises.

"Can’t wait," Nate replies, and he speeds up his stroke.

Brad comes exactly as embarrassingly fast as he warned, but rather than think about it, he flips Nate onto his back, sucks at a nipple, licks his belly button, and then gets to work sucking his dick.

"Jesus," Nate says. "Fuck. Holy shit. Fuck."

Brad grins and sucks harder, massaging Nate’s thighs and almost pulling off completely before diving back in.

"Brad!" Nate shouts in warning, and Brad backs off, jerks Nate once, twice, three times, four, and then Nate’s coming, eyes screwed shut, hands clenched in the sheets, and a mess on his thighs and stomach and groin when he’s finished.

*

"You are way too attractive," Brad says when he flops next to Nate. They’re both breathing heavy, and Nate drags himself across the bed and pulls a bath towel from a pile of dirty laundry to clean them both up.

"You’re one to talk," Nate replies as he tosses the towel back in the dirty clothes and collapses onto his pillow. They’re facing each other, Brad on his right side, Nate on his left. Nate reaches out and curls a hand over Brad’s left hip, runs it up and down from his hip to his waist. "I know the timing’s terrible, but can I ask?"

Brad considers saying no, the old hurt of everyone wanting to know rising up in him. But Nate’s just had sex with him without making a big deal out of it. Nate hasn't made a big deal out of any of it. The old hurt fades out a little in Brad’s chest, and Brad scoots closer, curls an arm around Nate’s middle. "What do you want to know?" he asks.

"What do you want to tell me?" Nate replies. "I don’t want to push at you, but it seems like you’re holding onto a lot."

Brad thinks about that day in Iraq. Hot and dry and awful as always. Walt driving while Garza was on the big gun. Trombley in his spot behind Walt, creepy as shit. The Reporter… "You know what an IED is, like in detail?" he asks.

"Improvised Explosive Device," Nate replies. "Usually filled with some sort of opportunistic shrapnel like nails or loose metal. Set off either with a lead wire connecting to a detonator or an electronic pulse from something like a cell phone."

"Um, yeah," Brad says, surprised. "That’s pretty fucking textbook there, Classics-Boy."

Nate grins. "Concentration on war narratives through the eons, remember? Lots of personal accounts of IEDs lying around to dig through."

"Why war narratives?" Brad asks.

"Because people always think they’re new. Every time a war comes, the stories get told, and people act like it’s some new tradition in publishing, that it’s getting edgier or that non-fiction is trying to be more bombastic, and it’s not. War narratives have been around since cave paintings. You get twelve guys with pointy sticks aimed at each other on a cave wall, what the fuck do you think that story is?" Nate pauses and bites his bottom lip and looks a embarrassed. "Shit," he says. "I didn’t mean to start that rant."

Brad kisses him for a long, warm minute. "Sounds like it’s a good rant," he says when he pulls away. They’re even closer now, the two of them not even taking up half of Nate’s queen-sized bed.

"I’d rather hear your story," Nate says.

Brad feels himself grin, and it surprises him. This story has never made him smile, and for good reason, but there’s something about Nate wanting to know--honestly know--that’s making Brad feel like it’ll be okay to tell him. "So, IEDs," he says. "Big deal in Iraq. They’re fucking everywhere. But, we didn’t know that at the time. Well, we did because we’re not fuck stupid, but IEDs weren’t getting the level of attention then that they are now."

"When were you in Iraq?"

"Before OIF had a name," Brad replies. He sees the shock in Nate’s eyes. "Yeah," he says. "First Marines to roll into that shithole."

"Tip of the spear," Nate mutters.

"Exactly that. The whole idea was to roll in as hard and as fast as possible. Basically race to Baghdad."

"Wait, is that a Recon job, that kind of work?"

Brad laughs, and it’s bitter and awful, but Nate doesn’t seem to notice. "No. No it is fucking not."

"What happened?" Nate asks.

"Shitty command decisions that led us on the wrong road. I told Hasser--Walt, my driver--I told him not to hit any IEDs. And, well, not an order you can always follow." Brad glances down at his left leg. Nate’s been stroking it the whole time, It had started as waist to hip but had lengthened from waist to the edge of Brad’s stump, like it was natural to want to touch him where he was mangled. Like it was all right.

"How badly was everyone hurt?"

"You can see mine. Walt took a shitton of shrapnel to the right side of his face. Trombley was in back behind Walt, got away with a couple of scrapes. Garza got a nasty gash but did alright. And there was…" Brad swallows hard and closes his eyes. "You keep up with war news, right? I mean the current stuff."

"Yeah," Nate says.

"You remember hearing about a reporter from Rolling Stone?"

"There was an embedded reporter--oh god," Nate says, and he crowds Brad, wraps both arms around Brad like Brad didn’t fuck up and get a man killed. Like Brad didn’t even think about Reporter when he started screaming at the guys to sound off.

"Evan," Brad gets out. "His name was Evan Wright. Piece of shrapnel got him just right in the femoral artery. Trombley...he did good, got him and Garza both bandaged up, but there’s only so much you can do for a femoral artery hit, and he bled out while we were waiting for someone to get to us."

Nate doesn’t say anything. Brad finds comfort in the silence. He pulls Nate a little closer and stares over Nate’s shoulder at the pile of Nate’s dirty laundry and the open closet door. "We got casevaced. I don’t really remember it. Woke up in Germany with the bottom half of my leg gone. Garza was stitched up and fucking loopy on meds, and Walt had been shipped somewhere else to get skin grafts." Brad feels Nate flinch. "Yeah, it was pretty bad, but last I heard, he was doing all right."

"You talk to him a lot?" Nate asks.

He had, at first. He and Walt trading e-mails and phone calls pretty regularly, but Brad had stopped picking up, stopping answering e-mails, and Walt had stopped reaching out. "Not in awhile," Brad says. "I…" He doesn’t know how to explain it. That he got up and went to work and saw Ray and went home and sometimes he tried dating but people kept getting scared off, and Brad wonders how much of it was that he carries his guilt where people can see it even if he doesn’t mean to.

"Hey," Nate says, and Brad focuses back in on him. "You okay? Comparatively speaking, of course."

"What made you want to pick me up?" Brad asks.

Nate looks confused. "That is not the question I was expecting," he says. Before Brad can bristle at that, he adds, "You were good-looking and near enough to a power source I could ask you to do something and check you out."

"No."

"Yeah," Nate says. "I told you, I haven’t been laid since the start of term--since a couple of weeks before, actually, and I walked into Dharma, and Rudy and Pappy were--have you noticed how they’re basically married?"

"God, I know. It’s disgusting. You know they’re not even dating?"

"What?" Nate shakes his head. "No."

"Yeah," Brad says.

"Jesus, and I thought my relationship prospects were abysmal until you flirted with me."

"Oh, yeah?" Brad says, actually surprised. Nate’s good looking and charming and willing to approach strangers. "How have you gone so long without getting laid?"

"A TA’s job is never done, and I’ve had a lot of people get the glazed-over look when I tell them what I study. I don’t want to be with someone who’s bored with me that quickly."

"So, I didn’t get glazed over?"

"You were pretty busy staring at my mouth, so I figured you were good for at least a quick lay." Nate laughs when Brad shoves at his ribs, but he doesn’t move from being wrapped around Brad. "I wasn’t wrong."

"No, suppose you weren’t," Brad replies. He watches Nate’s face shift between a few different expressions; curiosity, concern, a flash of happiness when he looks at Brad’s face again, and then friendly and warm and somehow promising.

"You want to order in a pizza?" Nate asks. "I don’t have another class today, and you said you can work anywhere."

"Pepperoni and olives," Brad says before he can talk himself out of it. "And I’m going to defile your shower."

"I haven’t cleaned it since I moved in," Nate says. "You’re going to have to make a hell of an effort." He rolls over and sits up, stretching before standing to dig around the floor for his jeans and--Brad assumes--his phone.

Brad sits up himself and glances at his prosthesis, tucked away next to the night stand. Should he put it back on to walk to the shower? He’ll only have to take it off again. He decides to leave it for now and stands up, taking a moment to find his balance before hopping towards the bathroom.

"Wow," Nate says, and Brad pauses in the doorway.

"What?" he asks, keeping his voice light, but there’s a touch of fear in his mind that Nate’s never seen him move around without his leg, that maybe Nate’s reevaluating Brad’s attractiveness as he watches him hop to the bathroom.

"Your tattoo is beautiful." Nate’s behind him now, and Brad can feel the ghostly presence of his fingertips hovering just above his skin. "May I?"

"Yeah," Brad says, and he shudders in pleasure as Nate traces the valley and ridges along Brad’s back.

"This must have taken hours."

"Four sittings," Brad says. "About four hours each."

"The detail is amazing." Nate follows another line, and Brad grips the doorway as he shudders again.

"Hey, can you come around me?" Brad asks.

"Yeah," Nate says, and he slides around Brad only to have Brad reel him in and kiss him until they’re both panting, Nate pressed against the doorjamb and Brad pressed against Nate. "You like getting your ink traced?" Nate asks with a grin.

"I like you," Brad says.

"I like you, too," Nate replies. He bumps his chest against Brad’s. "I still have to order pizza."

"Get garlic bread," Brad says. "We’ll need the carbo load for later."

Nate laughs and tweaks his nipple and laughs harder when Brad sucks in a breath and smacks his ass. "Clean towels are in the cupboard under the sink," he says.

"Copy that," Brad replies. He hops to the bathroom and shuts the door behind him. He finds a fresh towel, sits on the edge of the tub, and starts the water. There’s no shower stool for Brad to maneuver to, so he just waits until the water is warm, sits down in the tub, and closes the curtain around him before he pops the plunger to get the water to move through the showerhead. He scrubs down, moving from the floor to the edge of the tub when he needs to wash his legs, and then he shuts off the water, pulls the curtain, and is maneuvering so his legs are on the outside edge of the tub when Nate opens the bathroom door.

"Hey, your stuff’s still soaked--" Nate stops short at the sight of him. "Jesus," he says under his breath. He bites his bottom lip and gives Brad an obvious once over.

"You all right?" Brad asks, and he can feel himself grinning.

"Wasn’t really paying attention to what you looked like earlier," Nate says. "That was a mistake."

Brad lifts his chin, still grinning. "Oh, yeah?"

"Can you go again?" Nate asks. "Like, right now? Pizza’s gonna be another twenty minutes."

"Do you regularly proposition men getting out of the bath?"

"Only the ones who've sucked my dick before," Nate says, and he places the pile of clothes in his arms on the sink, drops to his knees, and presses Brad’s legs open to reach for his half-hard dick. "Yes?" he asks.

"Hell, yes," Brad replies. He grips Nate’s shoulders as Nate sucks him off and jacks himself in time. They both come quickly, Brad first with Nate pulling off and finishing himself as Brad leans in and kisses him hard.

"This is the best first date," Brad says when Nate’s gotten his breath back.

Nate chuckles and stands up, wiping his hand on the boxer shorts he’s wearing. "I can’t disagree," he says. He holds out his clean hand, and Brad takes to help lever himself up. "Your stuff was still soaked and is now in my dryer," Nate says. "I brought you a couple of things, but don’t feel like you have to get dressed on my account."

"I assure you I am only getting dressed because I do have work to do, and a laptop on my bare junk is not fun."

"Then I am assured," Nate says. There’s a knock on the front door, and he turns away, sliding his hand around Brad’s side as he does it. "That’s pizza. You want beer?"

"Always." Brad watches him walk away and then pulls on the clothes. It’s a t-shirt that’s a bit too short in the torso and shorts that are too loose in the waist. They don’t fall off, but they hang pretty low, and Brad has to roll the cuffs up when he sits on the bed to reattach his leg. When he looks up, Nate’s in the doorway. "What’s up?" Brad asks.

"Just watching," Nate replies. "I like the color on it."

Brad’s prosthesis is gun metal silver with black accents. He’d picked it out of spite, wanting something ugly that people would have to look at. "Yeah?"

"Fits you," Nate says. "Well, what I know of you. Badass Marine and all that."

Brad stands and walks over to Nate. His prosthesis clicks, but Nate doesn’t seem to notice. "The last guy I tried to date, he was scared of it."

"Then he’s a fucking dumbass. What’s to be scared of?"

"I’ve got a lot of baggage," Brad says.

Nate gets very serious. "Everyone’s got something. It’s whether you work with it or not that matters."

"What’s yours?" Brad asks.

Nate thinks for a minute. "I study war narratives because I’m not brave enough to go to war."

"It’s not bravery--"

"It’s part bravery, and I don’t have that part. I’m not a coward, but I’m not--I thought about joining. Looked into ROTC when I was in undergrad, but I...I didn’t."

"You'd make a terrible Army office," Brad says. "You'd do a lot better as a Marine." He pauses. "Why didn't you go for it?"

"I don’t know," and Nate sounds hollowed out when he says it, like he’s been trying to figure it out for years and has come to the conclusion there is no real answer. "I just didn’t. And I wonder what that says about me."

"It doesn’t say anything more than it does about me wanting to be a lifer from the time I was twelve," Brad says.

That makes Nate startle, like Brad’s shocked him out of his head. "No," he says.

"Oh, yeah. Forced my parents to put me in military school."

"You’re making this up."

"I’m not."

Nate eyes him. "C’mon," he says after a moment. "Food’s getting cold, and the beer’s getting warm. You can tell me this ridiculous narrative while we eat."

Brad does, spinning his life out for Nate to see and smile at. When he talks about raking his parents’ conversation pit, Nate laughs so hard he chokes on his beer.

"You did not," he says.

"I loved it," Brad confesses. "It was fun. I pretended I was a farmer."

"God, that’s so cute I might vomit."

"What about you?" Brad asks, adjusting his legs so that the right is under him and the left is under the coffee table in front of him where they’ve spread out the pizza and beer. "You’ve got to have a couple of embarrassing stories."

"What makes you say that?" Nate asks with a grin.

"You haven’t finished growing into your ears yet," Brad says. "I bet you have some adorable school pictures."

Nate laughs again and points at Brad with his beer bottle, trying to look stern but failing in the way he can’t pull back his smile. "Oh, yeah, like you grew up that buff without a completely awkward beanpole period."

Brad laughs in response, and they fall back into conversation. Once the pizza and beer are cleared off, Brad claims half of Nate’s couch to get some work done, and Nate settles in on the other end, a textbook in his lap and a highlighter in one hand. They work in silence for awhile, Brad answering progressively annoying e-mails and Nate flipping pages and making notes. When Nate sets his book aside, Brad looks up. "What’s up?" he asks.

"Dinner?" Nate replies.

"Not hungry just yet."

"Hrm," Nate says. He leans forward and snags two fingers into Brad’s collar. He gives a small tug. Not enough to unseat Brad or his computer, but enough to show intent. "You should get hungry," he says.

Brad closes his computer and leans forward to place it on the coffee table. Nate’s hand slides from his collar, over his pec, to the bare inch of skin showing where his borrowed t-shirt rides high. "Suppose I could," he says, and he tumbles Nate onto the couch until they’re both prone and making out with slow, intense kisses.

*

"Well, well, well," Ray greets Brad when he walks into Dharma during his free period the next day. "Isn’t that the ugly ass shirt you had on yesterday?"

"Shut up, Ray," Brad says, and he doesn’t mean to smile, but he can feel it slide across his face.

Ray looks gleeful, but turns on his heel and goes to the counter to order a coffee. When he comes back, he’s got his coffee, a huge cookie, and the same look on his face. "Did you stay over on the first date, Bradley? Were you a dirty little slut?"

Brad doesn’t answer right away. He sips his coffee and thinks back to waking up this morning tangled in Nate’s sheets, Nate sprawled on his half of the bed, but his hand on Brad’s arm. When Nate had woken up, he’d immediately rolled over to Brad and bitten the end of his nose. It was the kind of cutesy thing Brad wasn’t into, but the way Nate had looked at him in challenge had made him appreciate it.

"Oh, god, you’re already lovesick. I’m gonna throw up."

"That’s from the solid pound of sugar Pappy puts in those cookies," Brad replies. "And your burning jealousy that I’m getting some, and that your last expected lay turned out to be recruiting you to teach teenagers how to fuck goats."

"Ah!" Ray says, holding up his hand in protest. He’s just taken a huge bite of his cookie, and it takes him a few seconds before he can speak. "Turns out I was not wrong about my first impression of the shop teacher being into my hotness. He asked me out yesterday after the staff meeting, so up yours."

"Pity date," Brad declares.

"Eat me," Ray replies.

"Won’t shop teacher--what the hell is his name?"

"Walt," Ray supplies. "Walt Hasser."

Brad freezes. He feels his eyes widen, but he can’t stop them. "What?" he asks. "Did you say Hasser?"

"Yeah," Ray says, cramming the rest of his cookie into his mouth and taking a gulp of coffee after it.

"What’s--" his history is what Brad wants to ask, but he can’t bring himself to say so. "What’s he look like?" Brad tries instead.

"Sort of square, blonde hair. Fucking ridiculous eyes. Like, beyond bedroom eyes. Whore eyes. They’re whore eyes."

"Blue?" Brad guesses, and his stomach drops when Ray nods.

"Yeah. Wait." Ray can be a little slow on the uptake, but he’s not an idiot. "How did you--"

Brad watches everything click into place. He’s told Ray the story exactly once, but Ray’s got a memory like an elephant. "Shit," Ray says. "He was your driver, wasn’t he? Walt Hasser. Shit. I can’t believe I didn’t put that together. He told me his squad leader lost a leg, and I didn’t even think to mention you because I was busy staring at his mouth while he talked. Fuck."

Brad doesn’t know what to say. He feels cold all over, can feel his pulse in the inside of his elbow and the side of his neck without even touching it. He stares as Ray takes another swig of coffee and shakes his head at himself. "Did he…" Brad hears himself say, though it doesn’t feel like he’s saying it. "He look okay?"

"He’s fucking fine as shit, homes." Ray says, then comes up short when he sees the look on Brad’s face. "Brad, hey, he’s good, okay? Seems like he’s adjusted well. I mean, there’s some scarring, yeah, but he’s still got both eyes and doesn’t seem like he’s having flashbacks or anything. The kids love him." Ray pauses, clearly waiting for Brad to say something. When Brad doesn’t, he leans in like they’re sharing a secret. "You want me to give him your number? Let you two catch up?"

Brad shakes his head. "No. Why would you? That’s--"

"You went to war together, dumbass. You both took a hit off the same IED. Seems like something you could talk to each other about without getting all knotted up."

Brad shakes his head again, harder this time. "No."

"Brad--"

"I said no, Ray."

"Don’t pull that sergeant voice on me, asshole. It wasn’t scary when you had your gun on you, and it’s not scary now."

They fall into silence, glaring at each other. Rudy comes over to collect Ray’s trash, looks between the two of them, pats them both on the shoulder, and says, "Don’t hate, brothers. Appreciate. Whatever you’re fighting about, you’re fighting out of love."

"Oh my god, how are you even real?" Ray says, dissolving into giggles.

"I am as real as my mind allows me," Rudy replies. He smiles at them both, all serene goodness, and then he walks away.

"Jesus, that asshole," Ray says and nudges Brad’s arm when Brad doesn’t reply. "Look, you don’t want to talk to Walt, fine. But I plan to marry that pretty, pretty boy, so you’re gonna have to get used to seeing him around pretty soon."

"I’ll try," Brad says. "But maybe warn me the first few times."

"You’re recon, Brad. If you can’t see an ambush coming, I can’t help you."

"Don’t you have young minds to violate?" Brad asks, still prickly.

"Not for another ninety minutes," Ray says.

"Don’t you have a lesson plan to write?"

"That’s free period Fridays. And grading is tomorrow, so I got all kinds of time to sit here and bother you." Ray leans back and points at Brad. "Now, tell me all about your trampy lunch date from yesterday."

Brad considers telling him to go fuck himself, but Ray’s got his arms behind his head and is totally relaxed. Whatever fight they might have later, Ray’s willing to let it go for now. "I met him for lunch, and the crowd at the student union was ridiculous, so we were going to go somewhere else, but it started pouring down rain, so we went to his place and ordered pizza."

"There’s like a dozen places right next to the union to get food," Ray says. "You didn’t have to go to--wait a second, how’d you get to his place?"

"We sprinted," Brad says.

"In the rain?"

"That would be why we sprinted, Ray."

Ray laughs. "Oh my god, did you kiss on the way there, too? Really play up the chick flick moment while you had it? Was there a music montage?"

"Why am I even telling you this?" Brad asks, running his hands over his hair.

"Because it’s your buddy Ray-Ray, and you love me," Ray replies. "Not as much as you love Nate--"

"It was one date, Ray."

"You stayed over."

"So?"

"You seeing him tonight?"

"We’re grabbing dinner after his last class, yeah."

"You tell him any deep, dark secrets yet?"

Brad can’t answer that right away. The IED isn’t a secret, but it’s always felt like one. What happened to him to Walt and Garza and Trombley and...Reporter.

"You’re gonna get your mental ass back here right now," Ray says in a hard undertone. "I don’t know where you go when you get that look on your face, but it’s fucking scary, dude."

Brad shakes his head, trying to clear his thoughts. "I’m fine," he mutters. "I told him some stuff, yeah."

"And?" Ray asks. "I mean, it went well, right?"

"Yeah," Brad says. "He’s cool. I like him."

"Good. You should grab onto that with both hands and refuse to let go."

"What?" Brad asks. "Ray, it’s been one date."

"Homes, you have been fucking miserable since you got back, okay? You’ve tried not to be, but I shared a shitter with you. I know what you’re like when you’re hating on everything, so don’t try to pretend like you’ve been fucking sunshine and rainbows."

It’s been hard, Brad thinks. You don’t understand, he thinks, but that’s not fair. He knows Ray gets a lot of it. Not having to adjust to a prosthesis or deal with phantom limb pain, but he knows Ray gets the shock of coming back, the realization that he’s out of the Corps, not just between deployments. Ray gets having to start fresh and get his shit together and be productive without the Corps at his back, and maybe he doesn’t get it as much--he was never going to be a lifer; he’s told Brad as much--but he gets it, and Brad’s never taken him up on any of a multitude of offers to talk.

"Why didn’t you re-up?" Brad asks. "You could have just straight up said no to your mom and stayed in."

Ray’s face is screwed up like he’s going to call Brad on changing the subject. "Because it’s my mom, dude. I signed up for the Corps without telling her in the first place, and she fucking cried on my shoulder about it."

"Because you got the full ride?"

"No, because she was afraid I was gonna die."

"Why didn’t you go to Vanderbilt?" Brad asks. "Why’d you come here?"

"Because it was weird as shit being home, and it was weirder to stay anywhere like home." Ray leans against the table and gives Brad a once over. "Why are we suddenly talking about this shit? You’ve never asked before."

"Because you met my fucking driver by chance and want to date him, and I just spent last night having sex with a guy who studies war narratives because he feels like he was too cowardly to be a Marine."

"Huh," Ray says.

"Yeah," Brad replies.

"So, you like him. He’s cute. He doesn’t think you’re boring, and apparently his existence makes you willing to talk about shit a little bit. Dude, seriously, grab on and duct tape yourself to that."

"He’s not freaked out by my leg," Brad says. "He acts like it’s nothing he hasn’t seen before."

"Maybe he’s got a little old gram-gram missing a hand or something. Or maybe he’s just not a dick. Either way, forget the duct tape, super glue to that shit."

"You are entirely too invested in this whole thing."

"I repeat: you have been fucking miserable since you got back, and I am your friend, and I care and shit. And if I can’t get Rudy and Pappy to make out over the meringues, I can at least make sure you’re getting laid on the regular so you won’t get jealous when Walt and I start having more sex than you have ever seen."

Brad rolls his eyes. "Fine. I get it. I’ve been an asshole."

"You’ve always been an asshole. I love that you’re an asshole. I just prefer you as a sardonic asshole instead of a rage against the universe asshole," Ray says. "And if Nate’s making you talk about shit, it’s fucking better than being all silent and broody."

"Nate is not some sort of magical solution to my problems, Ray." Ray laughs, and Brad gives him a side-eye. "What?"

"Nothing, just, speaking of weird coincidences, you are running super close to the plot of that book I was reading because the kids made me."

"The one that made you look like a pedo?"

"Yeah. It’s all about this free spirit girl and how she affected people around her by just, like, being herself and shit, and they love her for it at first, but then they start to hate her because she just wants people to be happy, and they have this shitty basketball team that has a good season, and she’s a cheerleader, but she cheers for both teams because she doesn’t understand why it’s bad to cheer on people doing well at something."

"That sounds like some hippie-dippie bullshit."

"It’s pretty good, actually. The whole point is that she wants people to be happy, but they don’t want to make the personal changes it would take to be happy like she is."

"How the hell does this have anything to do with what we were just talking about?"

"I’m saying I agree that Nate isn’t your magical solution because you need to be responsible for your own shit, but trusting him with whatever you’ve already trusted him with seems like it’s already done some good for you, man."

"You sound like Rudy."

Ray grins. "Nah, not nearly enough shit about my life energy."

"Or longing looks at Pappy." They both glance towards the counter. Pappy’s up front, talking to Rudy about something, and Rudy’s leaning in so close they’re about an inch away from touching from shoulder to hip.

"Jesus, I am locking them in a storeroom," Ray says.

"Just kiss already!" Brad yells. Rudy and Pappy both glance towards him, Rudy smiling and laughing, Pappy flipping them the bird. They don’t back away from each other.

"Man, I get enough of this shit at work watching 12-year-olds try to figure out if they like each other," Ray groans.

"This is why I work alone in a dark room," Brad replies.

*

Brad goes home after work, changes into a button down and fresh jeans, brushes his teeth, and heads back out to meet Nate at a restaurant a few blocks down. When he gets there, Nate’s already seated at a back booth. "Hey," Brad says, and he’s tempted to lean down and kiss Nate hello.

"Hey," Nate says, looking up, and his eyes rest on Brad’s mouth for a second.

Fuck it, thinks Brad, and he bends down and pecks Nate on the mouth. When he pulls away, Nate’s grinning, and Brad slides into the booth across from him and picks up his menu. "Been here long?" Brad asks.

"Couple of minutes," Nate replies. He closes his menu and sets it aside. Under the table, he taps his foot against Brad’s. "Nice place."

"It’s comfortable," Brad says. "You haven’t been here before?"

"Nah, I’m usually within a square mile of campus between classes I need to take, classes I need to help teach, office hours, and tutoring."

"You didn’t mention you tutor."

"A couple of students in one of Prof Wynn’s classes approached me during office hours for help. They’re smart, and they’re hard working, but they came from some truly questionable public school backgrounds and aren’t quite up to speed on their writing skills."

"Comprehension’s good though?"

"Yeah," Nate cocks his head like he’s surprised. "Have you taught?"

"Not like you’re thinking--" Brad pauses as the server comes up, and he and Nate both order beers. "A team lead’s job is to teach," Brad continues once they’re alone again. "Trombley, from my unit--"

"The one who bandaged up Garza and Evan, right?"

Reporter, Brad corrects in his mind. "Yeah," he agrees. He feels tight in his skin, but he pushes forward anyway. "He’d just gotten approved for BRC--"

"BRC?"

"Basic Reconnaissance Course. It’s what you have to pass to be considered a Recon Marine."

"Okay," Nate says.

"So, he’s gotten the go ahead for the basic, but he hadn’t started before we shipped out, so he’s missing even the day one recon knowledge. The day one shit is pretty heavy, but the rest of us had been through BRC and the rest of it. There’s diving and mountain climbing and jump school; all this shit. And, he was sort of in the same boat as your two guys--"

"Evan and John."

"Evan? Really?"

"Yeah."

"Huh. So, Trombley was like that. Good comprehension but completely without even the recon 101 skills. And a team lead’s job is to have everyone on the same level, so you teach as you go."

"What do you teach?"

Brad shrugs, feeling fully awkward now but determined to tell the story. Determined to try, as Ray had pointed out, not being a closed-off bastard. "It depends on what needs explaining. He was sort of a horrifyingly good shot, and he knew regs and took orders, but there are little things like--" Brad cuts off and shakes his head. "Actually, this is really terrible dinner conversation, now that I think about it."

"You can’t cut yourself off now," Nate says. "I’m interested." He leans back as the server drops off their beers. They put in their orders: burger and fries for Nate, steak and vegetable and potato for Brad. "Is it some ultra-secret military trick?" Nate asks. "You can tell me, but you’ll have to kill me?"

Brad chuckles. "No, nothing like that." He leans in, and Nate leans in as well. "It’s just not good dinner talk."

"Come on," Nate says, nudging at Brad’s elbow. "Now you’ve got to tell me."

Brad ducks his head. "There are observations one needs to make when out on the battlefield."

"That does not clear up anything," Nate says.

"There are observations one needs to make about one’s bodily functions out on the battlefield."

Nate shakes his head. "What? Like keeping track of how much you’re sweating?"

Brad laughs. "No. More like…" He looks up and Nate’s watching him, expectant and clearly interested. "There are some strict guidelines if you’re on my team about how you should shit," he says, and there’s a moment of silence before Nate bursts out laughing.

"Oh, come on."

"I’m serious. A bad shit is the first sign that you’re not functioning at full capacity and could be a danger to your team."

Nate’s still laughing. "I get that," he says. "I just wasn’t expecting your delivery to be so--"

"Technical?"

"I wasn’t expecting you to say it at all, I think," Nate says. He takes a drink of his beer and leans forward again. "The war narratives I read don’t go into that kind of detail."

"You’re reading the wrong ones," Brad deadpans, and Nate laughs again. "And now that I’ve scarred you--"

"Hardly."

"Tell me what you’ve been up to today."

"Well, I woke up and there was this hot guy in my bed, so I had sex with him."

"That’s a good start."

"It wasn’t bad." Nate looks unrepentant when Brad kicks his foot under the table. "And I had classes and office hours and all that, and then I came here for dinner. Grad students lead an incredibly boring life."

"You like it though, right?"

"Yeah. It’s what I want to be doing, so here I am, you know?"

"I’m in IT because it was easy," Brad admits. "Not sure it’s where I want to be in five years, but it’s holding me over."

"Did you ever have plans that weren’t the military?"

"Nope."

They fall into silence, Nate studying Brad. Brad letting him look. They stay that way until their food is delivered, and Brad thinks about what Ray’s said about holding onto Nate. He considers it while they start to eat, and he’s halfway through his steak when he decides to go for it.

"Hey," he says, and Nate looks up from his fries.

"Yeah?"

"Was that silence weird for you?"

"No."

"Me neither."

"...Okay."

Brad looks down at his steak, then back at Nate, who’s watching him with some mild confusion on his face. "If I said to you, ‘Hey, we should just date each other and be exclusive and shit,’ is that creepy?"

Nate doesn’t answer right away. Brad appreciates that. He eats two more bites of steak before Nate says, "The very rational part of me says it’s a little creepy; the rest of me does not seem to care."

"Yeah?"

"I like what I know about you," Nate says. "And you like what you know about me, right?"

"Yeah."

"And we already know we’re good together in bed." Nate rolls his eyes when Brad leers at him. "And I know at least some part of your baggage, and you know some part of mine."

"There’s more," Brad says. "There’s...there’s a lot I haven’t really accounted for."

"In what way? Do you need to see a shrink?"

"No, I did all that. Just. There’s stuff." There’s guilt, Brad thinks. A lot of it that he hasn’t done much with. A lot of it that’s come up to the surface since seeing Ray earlier in the day and hearing about Walt. "I’ve spent the last year pretty much cut off in a lot of ways, and I got it sort of kicked into me that I need to stop doing that."

"Do you want to stop doing it?" Nate asks. "I mean do you want to genuinely make an effort to be outside your head more?"

"Yeah, I do."

Nate thinks again. Brad eats some vegetables and has a bite of his potato.

"Okay," Nate says. "I can work with that."

"Yeah?"

"I don’t expect you to bare your soul in one giant burst or anything, and we’ll probably have a couple of knock down drag outs about it, but I don’t see why any of that should stop us from just dating anyway."

"All right," Brad says.

Nate holds out his hand. "Shake on it?"

Brad chuckles and puts down his utensils. "All right," he says, and they shake. "By the way," he says before letting go of Nate’s hand. "I’ve been assuming since I got here that I can trick you into going home with me tonight."

"Well, you’ve ruined it by telling me," Nate replies. "Suppose I’ll just go home with you anyway."

"Works for me." Brad lets go of his hand and they go back to their meals. He still feels tight in his skin, but it’s not as immediate as it was before, not as sharp. It’s more like he’s settling in than trying to escape.

*

"Hey, Pap," Rudy says one night as they’re closing down. He’s cleaning the espresso machine, and Pappy’s beating down dough for the next day’s bread.

"Yeah?" Pappy asks.

"You ready to date me yet?"

"Not just yet," Pappy says, and he catches the way Rudy smiles a little. "But I’m getting closer."

"You just let me know," Rudy says. "Don’t let me push you outside your boundaries."

"You keep asking," Pappy replies. "And we’ll do just fine."

*

The next month slides by Brad like a montage of his own life. He works. He eats. He badgers Ray. He sees Nate, and when he sees Nate, everything mellows. Everything feels comfortable and right.

"Hey," Nate says one evening as he walks into the second bedroom of Brad’s place that's been piled with workout equipment. Brad’s on the stationary bike, prosthesis on, halfway through his workout and sweating. "You wanna go on a hike tomorrow?"

"A hike?" Brad asks.

"Yeah. There’s a couple of good hiking trails on campus. They’re not difficult or anything, but it could be fun."

Brad thinks about it, pushing himself a little harder on the bike without realizing. "I haven’t been hiking in awhile," he says. He means since he lost his leg. It’s been the stationary bike, some weights, lots of push-ups and sit-ups and other basic calisthenics.

"Well, it’s a good way to get back into it," Nate says. "There’s some nice water features, and it doubles as a jogging path if you’re looking to get back into that."

Brad narrows his eyes. "Is this you trying to subtly get me to go out and be Mr. Fake Leg Active Guy?"

Nate rolls his eyes. "Yes, you’ve caught my cunning plan to get you to go outside. Which you never do. Except for work and dinner and meeting me for lunch and running to the store last night for more pasta sauce and--"

"Sorry," Brad interrupts. He feels like an asshole. "I didn’t mean to...I don’t want to be the defensive guy with the fake leg, but it’s still weird."

"Why?" Nate asks.

"There are looks," Brad says. "People seem to think I don’t see them staring. And there’s these veiled questions that come up sometimes. And it makes me paranoid."

"I know you’re more than a guy missing a leg, Brad," Nate says. He walks over to Brad and slides his hands up Brad’s thighs. Brad can’t help but spread his legs a little, and Nate gives him a knowing grin. "And I know you got burned by some shitheads who couldn’t see past it. I’m not trying to turn you into the poster boy for hot guys who hike and happen to have a prosthesis. I just thought it’d be a good way to spend Saturday morning, and since you don’t have any problem being out and about on your leg, I thought you might like to go."

Brad mops the sweat off his face with a hand towel and feels like an asshole. "Okay," he says. "Yeah. How long’s the trail?"

"Couple of miles I think. Comes out on the north end of campus. If we get an early start, we can brunch it at one of the cafes right there after we finish and be shitfaced by three."

"All right, now you’ve sold me."

Nate grins and kisses him before stepping back to let him get back to his workout.

*

"You went outside?" Ray asks. "Like, in sunshine and shit?" It’s Monday afternoon, just after four, and Brad and Ray are grabbing an early beer to accommodate Ray just getting off work and Brad waiting for Nate’s two-hour class to let out.

"Yeah," Brad says. He looks down at his arms, still lightly pink from the hike. "There’s trails on campus."

"I am aware," Ray says. "Where the fuck do you think I smoked pot when I was going there?"

"You are a bastion of the higher education system in this country, Ray."

"Graduated in two years with a fuck-you-4.0." Ray takes a long pull of his beer then puts it back on the counter. He peels a corner off the label. "It’s good you’re getting out," he says, not looking at Brad. "You were on the verge of going creepy hermit on me."

"I was not."

"Bullshit. You got out for work and the occasional date, but getting you out for this--" Ray waves at the beers they’re having, "it was like pulling fucking teeth."

"It was not,." Brad says. "Just because I didn’t want to spend every night wingmanning your drunk ass--"

"Homes, you turned me down for an after-work beer every week for twenty-two weeks."

"No, I--"

"Yeah you did."

"What sort of freak counts that shit?"

"The sort of freak who got your ass through Afghanistan in the dark and counted turns around berms, motherfucker."

Brad doesn’t have a rebuttal to that because there is none. "Twenty-two weeks?" he asks. "Really?"

"Yup. I figured you’d need some time to get used to getting around and shit, and once you started trying to get laid again, I figured you were up for beers, but you said no every fucking time."

Brad stares at the line of bottles on the shelf behind the bar. "Shit," he says.

"Yup," Ray agrees.

He should apologize, Brad thinks. He knows Ray worries, not that they talk about it, but he should still apologize. "It’s hard," is what comes out instead.

"Which part?" Ray asks.

"All of it, okay? It fucking sucked. My whole life--Jesus, Ray, it was my whole life, and then, bam, it’s gone, and so is my leg, and all of a sudden I’m just...I’m a fucking civilian."

Ray doesn’t answer right away. When Brad looks at him, Ray’s watching him hard, reading the lines on his face in that way he’s done since they met. "It always meant a lot to me to be a Marine," Ray says. "Like, shit tons. And I knew it meant a lot to you, but I didn’t realize it was a lot to you."

"I did beg my parents to put me in military school," Brad says, going deadpan without meaning to, but it breaks up the serious look on Ray’s face and gets him punched in the shoulder.

"Yeah, but that’s like, looking back and romanticizing yourself, you know? I always figured it was half bullshit."

"Nope."

"Huh." Ray signals the bartender for another round and downs the rest of his beer. "You tell Nate any of this?"

"He knows about me begging my parents and wanting to be a lifer."

"But does he know this shit, Brad?"

"Are you looking out for my boyfriend’s virtue?"

"I’m looking out for you not getting your ass kicked to the curb for not talking to him," Ray says. "If he can get you go outside like a fucking person, seems like you should keep him around and informed."

Brad murmurs nonsense in agreement and slides the bartender his empty when he drops off fresh beers. "How’s the thing with Walt?" he asks.

Ray breaks out into a huge grin. "It’s good," he says, and there’s a moment where he tries to dial back his smile, but it doesn’t happen. Brad finds it sort of charming. "We’re going to this book signing on Friday. You and Nate should come."

"We’ve got plans," Brad says, which is a complete lie, but being able to ask about Walt is not the same as having the capability to actually see Walt again.

"Your loss. Actually, sort of my loss, too because I have no damn clue who it is. Walt’s just way into the guy, and I’m pretty sure if I’m not there, there’s some starfucking that will go down."

"Gotta protect your assets," Brad says.

"Damn straight," Ray agrees, and they clink bottles and drink.

Brad is tipsy when he leaves the bar and makes it to Nate’s with only the occasional unsteady step. Nate opens the door to his apartment, looks amused, and gestures Brad in with a grin. "Hi," Brad says, dropping an off-center and slightly sloppy kiss to Nate’s mouth.

"Hi," Nate says and watches Brad flop onto the couch. He shakes his left leg, frowning at it, then reaches down to pull up his pant leg. "Hold on," Nate says, dropping next to Brad and pulling the leg into his lap. "Let me. You’re all thumbs when you’ve had a few."

Brad looks ready to fight, but then he flops back and smiles. "You’re cute," he says.

"Thanks," Nate replies. He undoes the buckles on the prosthesis, rolls off the protective sock, and then he rubs Brad’s stump.

"That’s nice," Brad says.

"I’ve seen you do it," Nate replies.

"Why doesn’t my leg ever freak you out?" Brad asks, and he’s just sober enough to wince after he asks the question.

"Because it’s just a leg, Brad," Nate says, giving Brad a look that calls him a very cute idiot. "And it detaches, which makes it a little more complicated than other legs, but it’s just a leg."

Brad reaches out, and Nate takes his hand, and Brad drags him up onto the couch with him. "Ray says I’m a hermit," he says.

"A little," Nate replies.

"I don’t want to be a hermit anymore."

"All right."

*

The next month slides by like the first, instead of awake-work-Nate-sleep, it becomes more awake-work-doing-stuff-with-Nate-and-Ray-sleep. Brad wakes up one Saturday to Nate in jogging gear and gets dressed in his workout clothes without thinking.

"How far can you run on it?" Nate asks.

"I don’t know," Brad says.

"Well, if it snaps in half, try not to fall into a thornbush."

They make it Nate’s four miles, and Brad feels like he could do another forty, but Nate bribes him with bacon and eggs, so they go to a cafe instead. As they sit there, sweaty and gulping water before drinking their coffee, a little girl and her parents walk in. Brad’s in shorts, and the girl stares unabashedly no matter how much her parents try and distract her.

"I’m sorry," the mother says to Brad.

"It’s okay," Brad says, and he realizes he hasn’t noticed anyone looking for awhile now. He smiles at the girl and flexes his thigh to make his prosthesis move. The girl’s eyes widen, and Brad decides now is the perfect time to walk to the bathroom and splash some water on his face to cool down. When he comes back out, the girl has stopped staring, and he can see the dad’s phone where he’s looking up information on how a prosthesis works.

"I didn’t think you’d do that," Nate says in an undertone when Brad slides back into the booth.

"Do what?"

"Put on a show. You said you don’t like when people look at you."

"She’s a kid. Kids stare."

Nate smiles. "You softening up on me?" he asks.

"Only in this one case," Brad replies, but he’s smiling too.

They eat breakfast and go back to Nate’s. They get in the shower, have sex, actually shower, and when they get out, Nate says, "I’ve got to grade papers," so they sit on Nate’s couch and Brad reads a book while Nate mumbles at misused semicolons and bad research and puts his legs in Brad’s lap. It’s quiet and comfortable and is suddenly interrupted when Nate’s cell rings.

"Hey," Nate says when he flips his phone open, and Brad puts his book down and slides between Nate’s legs. Nate tries to kick him away, but Brad grabs his leg and bites his ankle. "Ow! What? No, I’m fine. Brad just fucking bit me."

"Who is it?" Brad asks and licks a stripe up Nate’s calf to make him squirm.

"Stop that," Nate admonishes. "And it’s Ray."

That makes Brad pause, surprised, and he finds he can't seem to make himself move as Nate agrees to meet Ray that night and hang up his phone. "When’d you get Ray’s number?" he asks.

"Few weeks ago," Nate replies, shaking his leg of Brad’s grip and grabbing at Brad’s t-shirt with his toes to try and reel him in. "We swapped numbers at Dharma."

"You guys haven’t been at Dharma together," Brad says. He does not move when Nate pulls harder at his t-shirt.

"We run into each other there sometimes," Nate says. "It was that day you had the mainframe meltdown or the server issue or something. You worked fourteen hours, and I mentioned to Ray you were gonna probably be doing some massive overtime, so we swapped numbers to hang out."

"Have you been hanging out with him a lot?"

"Not really. Still sort of into you, you know." Nate sits up and tugs at Brad’s shoulders to try and get him to move, but Brad still stays upright. "What?" he asks. "You said Ray was a--what was it? Oh, yeah--chicken fucking shit for brains, but I thought that was just you guys being you guys."

"It was," Brad says, and he softens just a little bit, enough that Nate smiles and slides his hands under Brad’s t-shirt. "I just didn’t realize you were hanging out."

"Don’t worry," Nate says. "I still like you best."

You’d better," Brad says and leans down to kiss Nate’s neck. "Did you just agree to meet up with him tonight?"

"I agreed that we would meet up with him tonight," Nate says. "He wanted to grab dinner and beers."

"Oh, okay."

Nate runs his hands up and down Brad’s back. "He said he’d call it a double date if he was a chick, so I assume that means Walt’s going to be there."

Brad freezes. "What?"

Nate cocks his head, "Hey, it’s okay. Ray says Walt wants to catch up with you."

Brad backs away, nearly sending himself off the couch in his rush. "I don’t want to catch up with him," Brad says. "I…" I can’t, he thinks but can’t say. You don’t understand, he wants to say.

"Brad. Hey. Brad." Nate reaches out and Brad stands up to get away from him. Nate’s left, one hand hanging in mid air. "Okay, that’s a bit much."

"I don’t want to see him," Brad gets out.

"Bullshit," Nate says, and he’s mad suddenly, whole face going stony as he stands and gets into Brad’s space. Brad doesn’t move back, lets Nate bump his chest as he holds his ground. "You haven’t talked about him a lot, but what you’ve said, you care about him, Brad."

"You don’t know that."

"If you didn’t care about him, you wouldn’t be fighting me on this. It’s just dinner!" Nate steps away from Brad and shakes his head. "Walt’s a nice guy--"

"When the fuck did you meet Walt?"

"At Dharma with Ray a few times. Jesus, Brad, you’re acting like I’ve gone behind your back or something."

"Haven’t you? I bet you planned this. I bet you and Ray got together and planned this all thinking I’d just go along."

Nate looks dumbfounded. "What the fuck?" he asks. "What the fuck," he repeats. "You can’t seriously--what is your goddamn malfunction in this? I get that you have guilt on it, but Walt really is excited to see you again."

"You don’t get it," Brad hisses, and he feels the mean, cold part of him rise up to take over. "I was team lead, Nate. It was my job to keep everyone safe, and Walt’s face is fucked up, and I don’t have my leg, and Reporter is fucking dead, and it’s because I fucking failed them."

"You did not--"

"How would you know? You didn’t have the balls to go to war."

The silence rattles Brad’s bones when it lands. Nate turns on his heel, opens his apartment door, and stands next to it. "You want to fuck yourself up with your emotional issues, fine. But you do not fuck me up with it. Get out."

"Nate--"

"Get the fuck out, Brad." Nate stares him down hard. Brad walks by him, out the door, and stands on the other side of it, waiting for it to slam. It doesn’t. Nate closes it softly, and the click of the latch makes Brad wince.

"Fuck," Brad mutters. "Fuck. Fuck. Fuck."

*

Brad calls in on Monday and takes a week’s vacation on the spot. He spends Monday and Tuesday in his apartment, alternately staring at Nate’s number in his phone and swearing at himself for his dumbass response.

On Wednesday, his phone rings early, and Brad lunges for it, thinking maybe it’s Nate. It’s Ray.

"You stupid fuck," Ray says after Brad’s hello. "I know you’re an emotionally stunted shit for brains, but are you fucking kidding me with this?"

"Ray--"

"Fuck you, Iceman. You made Walt cry, motherfucker."

"I did no--"

"Why the fuck would I lie about that? Oh, and I’ve been having to talk down your fucking boyfriend, too. So thanks for making that a part of my life."

"Nate’s called you?"

"Yeah. And we’ve had coffee. And he came over last night to try and apologize to Walt for you being a dickshit."

Brad doesn’t know what to say. "Fuck."

"Yeah."

"How do I…" Brad waits for Ray to interrupt with another insult or advice, but Ray stays silent. "Ray…" Ray is still silent. He’s going to have to say it, Brad thinks. There’s no Humvee to slam the brakes on to make Brad apologize, but Ray’s silence is giving him the same feeling in his guts. "Shit. Ray. How do I fix this? I have no idea how to fix this."

Ray stays silent for another few seconds, then he sighs explosively and says, "Goddamnit, why I gotta be friends with a dumbass like you? Look. Meet me down at Dharma at eleven, okay?"

"I--"

"And don’t wear your leg."

"Why?"

"Because I fucking said so, and I’m about to do you a huge fucking favor."

"All right," Brad says, and Ray hangs up before Brad can say anything else.

*

He gets to Dharma at 10:45, on his crutches per Ray’s request. Rudy greets him with a smile and a wave. "Brother! Good to see you!"

"Hey, Rude," Brad replies.

"Coffee with a shot?"

"Yeah."

Rudy looks at him for a long moment before taking his credit card. "You’re down, brother. All your lines are muddled."

Brad has no idea what that means. "Yeah," he agrees. "Sort of jammed my foot in my mouth on a thing."

"Your guy’s been in a few times," Rudy says. "His lines are all muddled, too. You wanna talk about it?"

"No," Brad says, and he can’t help but smile at the way Rudy just nods in understanding. "But thanks."

"Always here for you," Rudy says. "You know that."

"Yeah," Brad says, and he walks over to a table and sits down. Rudy comes by and drops off his coffee, and Brad stares into it until he hears the door open at exactly eleven. He looks up, and it’s Ray and...Walt.

"Don’t you say a fucking word," Ray says to Brad. Walt sits across from Brad. Ray slides his hands over Walt’s shoulders and up the back of his neck, and Walt looks up to give him a small, warm smile. "And don’t you say a fucking word," Ray says to Walt, but with a great deal more fondness. "Let me get our coffees, all right?"

"Sure," Walt agrees. Ray kisses him on the top of the head, gives Brad a death glare, and goes up to the counter.

Brad doesn’t want to look at Walt, but he can’t help it. He hasn’t seen him since they were both evac-ed. The last time he’d seen Walt he’d been covered in blood, bandages pressed to his face as he’d laid back in a morphine haze, staring at nothing. Brad had expected disfiguring scars and maybe Walt losing his right eye, but Walt doesn’t look so bad. There’s scarring, but it’s not the huge welts Brad was expecting. It’s more like stippling, scattered from the right side of Walt’s chin up to his ear and a bit on his forehead. There’s a waxy texture near the corner of his mouth that pulls it a little off-center, a similar waxy bit up by his eyebrow that pulls it down a little. It’s enough that Brad is certain Walt probably gets a lot of looks, but it’s not the horrible disfiguration he was expecting.

"All right," Ray says as he sits down and puts a cup of coffee in front of Walt. "Here’s how this goes. Brad, you are going to shut the fuck up and stay that way until I say you can speak. Walt, you are going to listen to my arguments in this asshole’s defense, and then you will decide if you care to hear him defend himself. If you want to hear him defend himself, I will leave you to it. If you don’t, we’ll go back to work in about five minutes, and I will sex you up in a supply closet."

Walt ducks his head as he grins. "Ray," he says, and it’s all fondness. It makes Brad hurt a little to see it, especially when he catches the way Ray just stares at Walt for a second like he can’t believe they’re together. It makes him want to call and call until Nate picks up and lets him stumble through an apology.

"Okay," Ray says, and he stares hard at Brad. "Here’s my argument, as the Iceman’s former RTO and the one guy who’s put up with his shit since his leg got eaten by wild dogs."

"God, real--"

"Shut up, Brad. You see, Walt, Brad has control issues, and he also really, really liked being a badass Recon Marine, and then everyone in the military collectively lost their damned minds and stuck this dumb asshole in a victor in the middle of Iraq doing the literal opposite of his job. But Brad being the lifer-minded guy he is, rolled with it because ooh-rah and so on. And so he decides somewhere in his honor-soaked brain, that he’s going to be the best damn team leader the Marine Corps has ever seen, and he’s going to get all you misplaced motherfuckers through Iraq in one piece. And that didn’t happen."

Walt looks at Brad, taking his measure. Brad stays silent, as per the agreement, and lets him look.

"You all hit an IED," Ray continues. "And you got hit, and Brad got hit, and Garza got hit, and that reporter who was with you--"

"Evan," Walt says.

"Evan," Ray repeats. "He died. Which, by the way Brad, you never once told me. And it’s only because Walt told me that I figured it would not be a complete waste of time to get you two in a room together so you can apologize for refusing to even be in the same room as Walt." Ray pauses. "You can talk now," he says to Brad.

It takes Brad a few seconds to find the words. "Hasser, I didn’t--it’s not you, okay? It’s--I didn’t…"

"Ray," Walt says. "I’ll meet you back at school after lunch, okay?"

"Sure," Ray says. He stands and grabs his coffee, gives Walt a quick kiss on the mouth, gives Brad another death glare, and then he’s out the door.

"Imagine my surprise," Walt says, "when I get hired at this middle school I applied to at random and find out the guy I’ve got a crush on is not only a former Marine like me, but he was your driver before I was." Walt grins, and it’s off-center, but it’s exactly the same as Brad remembers it. "That’s some fucked up shit."

Brad feels himself smiling back, impossible not to when Walt grins. He remembers teasing him about it a few times, and Walt had always just laughed and said it was his pretty mouth that kept them in batteries, so Brad better appreciate it. "Little bit," he agrees.

"I thought…" Walt looks down at his coffee, his shoulders hunching. "When Ray said you didn’t want to see me, I thought it was because of the roadblock."

Brad’s guts fall to his feet. "Shit. No. That wasn’t--not ever, Hasser. You hear me. That will never be a reason I don’t want to talk to you."

Walt’s shoulders relax. He looks up. "Yeah?"

"Yeah."

"Did you think I didn’t want to see you because Reporter died?"

It’s Brad’s turn to look down at his coffee. When he does, he can see his left leg, his jeans tucked up and pinned to keep the bottom half of the leg from swinging in the breeze. "I don’t know. Maybe."

"I don’t blame you," Walt says. "No one blames you. It’s not your fault what happened."

"I was team lead," Brad says, looking up. "I told you to drive, and you drove, and we hit it. It’s on me."

Walt laughs, and it’s so unexpected it makes Brad jump. "You told me to drive because command told you to drive. It wasn’t your job to see the future or have x-ray vision to see it coming. It sucked, man. But it didn’t happen because you said drive. It happened because it sucked."

Brad thinks about that. "It sucked?"

"It sucked," Walt says. "And it was sad, and I spent the first three months home drunk as shit on cheap beer while I tried to figure out what the hell I was going to do with my life."

"You were a lifer, too," Brad says. He’d forgotten, in the tangle of his emotions, that he and Walt had had that in common.

"Yeah," Walt says. "And I wasn’t a tech junkie who could go into IT, so I spent some time just doing nothing and hating it. Then I looked in the mirror one day, and stared at my face and realized it wasn’t as scarred as I thought; so maybe I wasn’t as bad off as I thought. I got my GI bill paperwork together and got an associates to teach, and here I am."

"Are you happy?" Brad asks.

"I get to work with my hands and don’t have to worry anybody’s shooting at me," Walt says. "And the kids are pretty cool."

"An associates in a year?"

"Didn’t have much else to do," Walt says.

"Good for you, Hasser."

"Thanks."

Brad takes a drink of his coffee and considers what else to say. "You get your shit together but you’re attracted to Ray Person. May want to get your head examined."

"Fuck you," Walt replies, and they smile at each other. "We good?" Walt asks.

"We’re good," Brad says. He holds out his hand and Walt shakes it. "Thanks," Brad says.

"You’re welcome," Walt replies. He glances at his watch. "I gotta get back. Let’s get beers soon, all right?"

"Yeah," Brad says even though the idea still makes him nearly shake. "Catch you later, Hasser." He stays after Walt leaves, drinking his coffee in even sips as he tries to think everything through. Wonders how to call Nate and explain what a fuck up he is.

A cookie on a green plate gets set in front of him. Brad looks up, and Pappy gives him a small smile. "Never let a mule kick you twice."

"Huh?"

"Never let a mule kick you twice," Pappy says, and he walks away like he’s imparted some great wisdom.

"The fuck does that mean?" Brad calls after him, but Pappy ignores him, pauses by Rudy to say something, and Brad’s interest is piqued when he sees Pappy’s hand curl at Rudy’s waist.

Rudy comes over a few seconds later, wipes down the table around Brad, and then sits down. "Pappy thinks you could use some conversation," he says.

"A translator is more like," Brad answers. "Never let a mule kick you twice?"

Rudy smiles, glancing back over his shoulder. His whole face lights up when he looks at Pappy, and Brad almost can’t handle it. "Brother," Rudy says as he looks at Brad again. "I don’t know your whole history, and it’s not mine to know if you don’t want to share, but I know there’s two kinds of love in the world, and one of them you’ve got to be careful moving into it, and the other you just need to go whole hog and commit."

"...okay," Brad says. "Is this your way of telling me you and Pappy have finally hooked up?"

"No," Rudy says. "Me and Pappy, we’re the careful sort of love. What we’ve got now, it’s so great we’re cautious how we move with it. But you and Nate? You dove right in, and if you’re willing to jump that far off a ledge to see what happens, you should be willing to climb right back up the side of the cliff barehanded and make right what went wrong."

"That is possibly even less helpful than never let a mule kick you twice."

Rudy shrugs, then glances out of the big picture window and stands up. "It’s damned useful," he says. "You’ll figure it out."

Brad looks where Rudy was looking, and he clenches his cup so hard it almost crushes. Nate’s coming down the sidewalk, backpack on his shoulders, and Brad can’t get himself up and moving before Nate’s inside the store and spots him. "Hi," Brad gets out.

Nate looks like he doesn’t want to answer. Brad can’t blame him. "I’m supposed to meet Ray here," Nate gets out. "If that’s all right with you."

"Um," Brad clears his throat. "He was here already." Brad grimaces as it strikes him that Ray has completely set him up. "And he’s an asshole."

"Seems to be your opinion on a lot of people," Nate says, and he turns to leave.

"Wait!" Brad calls out. "Hold on. I just. I can’t run after you."

Nate looks confused. "What?"

Brad twists in his chair so Nate can see he’s not wearing his prosthesis. "I can’t run after you, but I need--I need to apologize, and I need to talk to you."

Nate considers it for a long moment. Before he can make up his mind, Rudy comes over and sets down a large coffee across from Brad in front of the chair he clearly expects Nate to take.. "Watch out for how he kicks," Rudy says to Nate, and Nate looks more confused.

"What the fuck?" he asks.

Brad desperately wants to drown himself in what’s left of his coffee. "Look, Ray asked me to meet him here so Walt and I could talk. He told me not to wear my leg, and I wasn’t sure why, but I went with it. Now I think maybe he did it so I couldn’t run away from you when he had you show up but also so you might stop and talk to me about what an asshole I was."

Nate shakes his head. "No," he says. "No, this is not what’s happened."

"Yeah, I think it is," Brad says. He looks up when Rudy comes over again, pours Brad a fresh cup of coffee, and finishes off the refill with a shot of espresso. "And I think Rudy might be playing matchmaker."

"Just making sure you’re comfortable, my man," Rudy says. He looks at Nate and gives him a hopeful smile. "You’re staying, right? Pappy’s got some lemon meringues coming up in a minute."

Nate looks torn, then he shakes his head and starts to pull off his backpack. "Cheating," he tells Rudy. Rudy grins, pats him on the back, and walks away again.

Nate sits slowly, settles his backpack next to his chair, and then looks at Brad. "You were an asshole," he says.

"I was a huge asshole," Brad agrees. "And I’m sorry. I...I fucked up, and what I said to you--"

"About me being a coward," Nate says, voice all ice and anger.

"Yes," Brad agrees, and he thinks his heart might slam out of his chest. "You’re not a coward. I’ve never thought you were. I was just--I’ve been the coward," Brad says. "I’ve been scared of a lot of shit. I thought I couldn’t be scared of shit because Recon Marines don’t get scared, but that’s pretty much moto bullshit, and the truth is, I’ve been scared pretty much since the day I got back and got off the pain meds enough to think straight."

Nate curls his hand around his coffee and doesn’t speak. He reaches out and steals Brad’s cookie and Brad lets him. "What were you scared of?" he asks.

"Figuring out what to do with my life. Figuring out how not to be a Marine. Figuring out how my leg worked. How I worked with it. How I could function when I--" Brad clears his throat and shakes his head and blinks away tears, "How I could function when I got a man killed," he says in a rush. "How I could function when I’d gotten my team hurt." He waits for Nate to tell him he didn’t do those things, that they weren’t his fault, but Nate just watches him, waiting for him to say more.

"And then I met you," Brad says, "and I felt like I was on fast forward, and I liked it. I liked it a lot." Nate smiles, just a little, and Brad finally feels like he can fix this. "And I thought I was putting myself out there and letting you goad me into doing more than I’ve been doing, and I was, and I did, and it was just, Walt, he’s...there’s a lot there I hadn’t processed, and I still haven’t, but I’d kidded myself into believing I wouldn't have to."

"Okay," Nate says, and he says it quietly, but it shuts Brad up immediately. "All right," Nate says, and he goes quiet again.

"I’m sorry," Brad says again.

"You’ve said that already."

"I don’t know what else to say," Brad says. Except I love you, he thinks, but he’s got enough sense not to blurt that out right now.

"Look, Brad, I...I care for you, maybe more than I should after two months. And when we agreed to jump into this like we did, I figured there would be some shit to deal with, but not this fucking aneurysm over dinner and beers with Ray and Walt."

"I know," Brad says.

"And I can’t help but wonder, what else is in you waiting to explode like that? What else are you going to strike out with?"

Pappy’s words suddenly make sense. Never let a mule kick you twice. Don’t be damned foolish a second time around. It steels Brad’s nerves, makes him reach out and take Nate’s hand. Nate allows it, even curls his hand around Brad’s. "I don’t know," Brad says. "But I’ll think about it. I can make you a list, and if I miss something, you can kick my ass."

Nate smiles, and his whole face softens. "Seems sort of unfair," he says. "Kicking the ass of a one-legged man."

"Don’t worry about me," Brad says. "Recon Marines are sneaky."

"Guess we’ll see," Nate replies, and he leans over, kisses Brad on the mouth and says, "I accept your apology."

Denouement

"I cannot believe these fuckers are getting married," Ray says to Walt, waving the invitation around like he’s trying to flag down a cab. "They’ve barely been together!"

"So?" Walt says, taking the invitation from Ray to read it himself. "We’ve barely been together, and you asked me to move in already."

"I just want your sweet ass, Whore Eyes."

Walt rolls his eyes and smacks Ray on the ass. Ray’s phone rings, and he answers it with, "Bradley!" A brief pause and then, "Yeah. Sure. We’ll meet you down there." He hangs up and grins at Walt. "Meeting the asshole duo down at Dharma for more news on exciting events."

"You sound like a bad summary," Walt says, and Ray crowds him against the wall and kisses him hard before they leave.

When they get down to Dharma, Brad and Nate are sitting on one side of a four-person table, damn near in each other’s laps, talking with their heads together and laughing.

"Gross," Ray says as he sits and yanks Walt into his lap.

"Shut up, Ray," Brad says in greeting, and they all look over as Rudy and Pappy approach.

"You got the invites?" Rudy asks.

"Just opened ours before Brad called," Ray says. "Gonna make an honest man of him, huh?"

"Gonna try," Pappy says, and he smiles at Rudy and noses at his cheek to encourage him to talk.

"Me and Pap, we’d be right where we are right now no matter if we’d been goaded or not," Rudy says, and Nate, Brad, Ray, and Walt all chuckle. "But we figured, since Brad and Ray did goad us, maybe they’d like to stand up for us."

"And we wouldn’t mind having a couple of ushers who won’t actually swear at my granny," Pappy says to Walt and Nate.

"Yes," Ray says instantly.

"You romantic, you," Brad says.

"Like you’re gonna turn them down?"

"Wouldn’t dream of it," Brad says. He holds out his hand to Pappy, who shakes it, and then to Rudy, who pushes it aside and hugs him. "Congratulations," Brad chokes out from Rudy’s rib-crushing hug.

"Thank you, brother," Rudy says as he pulls away.

"I’d love to be part of your wedding," Nate says.

"Same here," Walt agrees.

"Well, that’s taken care of then," Pappy says. "Next round of coffee’s on us."

"Hell yeah," Ray says. "Let’s celebrate this bitch." He shoves Walt off his lap and then drags him towards the counter to ask Rudy and Pappy questions and tease them while Rudy makes the coffees.

"Hey," Nate says, and Brad turns to look at him. He’s looking at Brad like he’s brand new.

"What’s up?" Brad asks.

"I love you," Nate says. It’s the first time either of them has said it. Even though it’s only been two months since they mended what Brad damn near broke.

"I love you," Brad replies, and they kiss, quick and warm. They smile at each other, as Nate rests his hand on Brad’s left leg, and Brad is pretty sure life is great.