It’s 110 degrees—a record high. Brad spent most of the day at the beach where the wind off the waves cooled the air down, but he agreed to watch the Orioles game with the LT in the late afternoon so he couldn’t stay there forever. At 4 PM it’s simmering in the shade of the LT’s porch. The air is so heavy it’s hard to breathe and his skin feels too tight. He rings the doorbell, sticky and uncomfortable. The sound of the chime floats through the door.
There’s a long moment of silence and then a thump. “It’s open,” the LT calls, voice muffled.
Brad pushes the door open. It swings back into the house with a rusty squeak. He finds the LT lying on the floor in a t-shirt and exercise shorts, flushed red.
“LT?” Brad asks. It’s dark in the house. All of the blinds are drawn and none of the lights are on. There’s a fan whirring away at the backdoor. He looks at the LT's prone form and asks, “What happened?”
The LT groans and shifts. “I went for a run.”
Brad stares at him for a long moment. “I never thought you’d have the intelligence of a demented rabbit, but apparently, you learn new and fun things every day.”
The LT shuts his eyes and thunks his head against the floor. “And the air-conditioner broke on the hottest day of the year.” He pauses and then blinks. “Are rabbits particularly dumb?”
“Yes.” Brad plunks down on the floor next to the LT. “Are we watching the game?”
The LT waves a weary hand at the remote sitting on his coffee table and then drops his arm feebly back to the floor. Brad laughs and reaches out to grab it, turning the television onto the pre-game commentary. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything so pathetic.”
The LT actually sticks out his tongue. Brad laughs at him. The LT smiles back and then shifts so that his shirt hitches up over his abs. Brad looks pointedly away from the trail of reddish hair disappearing into his shorts. After a moment, unsure of what to do with himself, still fighting against staring, Brad moves to the LT's sofa.
Twenty minutes later they’re into a round of boring commercials, the Orioles are in the Outfield and the White Sox are at bat. The LT still lies on the floor, but watches the screen out of the corner of his eye. There’s the hiss of automated sprinklers outside and the LT lifts his head up. Brad snorts fondly as Nate slowly picks himself up off the ground, groaning as he straightens up. The LT gives him the finger and then goes to the back door, carefully stepping around the fan.
“LT?” Brad calls as he disappears into the backyard. Brad rolls his eyes and gets to his feet. It wouldn't do to let Fick collapse from heat exhaustion on Brad's watch. He follows him out the backdoor. The LT stands in the jet of the sprinkler, face tilted up to the sky and expression blissful.
His hair falls wet and dark into his eyes and he opens them suddenly and says, “Are you just going to stand there?”
“You’re a very strange man, LT,” Brad replies.
The LT grins at him and plunges a hand into the spray, directing the water off his palm right at Brad. Brad shouts as the sudden icy spray hits him right in the face. Nate cackles, flicking wet fingers at him.
He wipes his face off slowly and says, “You’re going to pay for that one.”
The LT laughs and replies, “Bring it.” He takes off as Brad starts toward him and they run circles around the backyard, forcing Brad to leap through sprinklers just to follow, but then the LT slips on the sodden grass and Brad is upon him. He’s laughing the whole time as Brad gets him in a sleeper hold.
“You win, you win,” he cries, choked up with mirth and Brad lets him go. He falls back into the wet grass, breathing hard as the sprinklers arc over him.
The LT tugs at his t-shirt and it comes away from his skin with a sucking smack. “Much better,” the LT says and slumps back beside him. He’s still flushed under his tan, but he looks far less mournful.
“I’m surprised they let a deranged overgrown child lead men into battle, sir.”
The LT makes a sound and doesn’t answer for a long moment. When he does, he says, “You know I’m not a lieutenant anymore.”
“I’m sorry, Captain,” Brad replies, sardonic twist to his mouth.
The LT flicks water into his eyes. “No, I mean, I’m a civilian now…” He’s staring at Brad with a strange light in his eyes.
Brad swallows. “Are you directing me to ask you a question, sir—Nate?”
“Yes,” Nate says, leaning in.
“No, the answer to the question is yes,” Nate interrupts and bends down over him to catch his mouth in a kiss. It’s a wet, tentative press, flavored by sprinkler water, and Brad tolerates it for a second before dragging Nate down on top of him. Their mouths part and Nate breathes hard. Brad feels those breaths through his entire body.
He looks up at Nate’s face almost in awe and runs his fingers through his hair. It’s grown a fair bit since Godfather was forcing them to cut their hair every day in Iraq. Nate’s eyes slide shut and Brad leans up and brings their mouths back together again. This is not how he imagined it. He never thought in a million years that there would be room for tenderness between them, but Nate’s mouth is gentle on his. His tongue swipes over Brad’s lower lip and when Brad moans he does it again and again.
Suddenly Nate jerks himself away. “The game!” he cries and scrambles to his feet.
“Seriously?” Brad replies, still sprawled out in the grass.
Nate looks down at him and smirks. “If the Orioles win, I’ll blow you.”
Brad breathes deep. “Oh, right. The game. That I find myself suddenly caring about.”
He sees the kid a lot when they get to go into Carlsbad. Brad’s been going to school here since the 7th grade, but until the start of this year, he never saw him at all. He doesn’t know why he notices him everywhere. The kid’s pretty unremarkable looking. And yet, every time Brad runs into him—in the record store, at the movies, at the fucking all-night Denny’s at 4 AM with a bunch of other wholesome looking teens—he can’t look away. He even finds him running in the park one time when Brad’s walking through.
The expression on his face is so intent, like he’s on another planet. Brad knows that feeling. He swallows and looks away.
The next time Brad gets a free weekend he goes by himself to the bookstore and spots the kid, back against a shelf in the science fiction reading a mass market paperback. Brad inhales and it’s like the kid hears it because he looks up suddenly and smiles. He closes the book, index finger holding the page and disappears among the sections. Brad pushes him from his mind, looking through the new titles on the shelves. He doesn’t get much chance to read books for pleasure, but he likes to, sometimes.
Brad runs into the kid again at the register. He’s paying for the sci-fi book and two other heavier volumes, Brad thinks he sees Hemingway’s name and Noam Chomsky.
The cashier says, “That’ll be $36.50.” The kid digs in his pants, and comes up with $35.50.
“Shit,” he says, pulling out his pockets for any loose change.
“If you don’t have it, you’ll have to choose which book you don’t want,” the cashier says, annoyed. She ticks her fingers against the side of the register.
The kid stares at the pile of books, teeth sunk into his lip.
Brad pauses for a long moment and then pulls out a dollar and says, “I got it.” He leans over the kid’s shoulder to hand the dollar over and the kid turns his head to look at him at the exact same moment. His nose brushes over Brad’s cheek and Brad barely keeps himself from jumping.
“Thank you,” he says, softly. Brad never realized, but his eyes are green. The brightest green he’s ever seen. The cashier puts the books in a bag and hands it over and then looks at Brad expectantly. It takes him a minute to realize she wants him to put his own collection of purchases down on the counter so that she can ring them up. The kid lingers off to the side, though Brad doesn’t know why.
When Brad gets his bag and goes to the door the kid accompanies him. He holds the door open and holds his hand out to shake on the other side. “I’m Nate.”
He nods and says curtly, “Brad.”
“Thanks again,” Nate tells him. He hesitates and then says, “I work at Crème De Café and if you want, I can get you a free cup of coffee in thanks.”
“I don’t drink coffee.”
Brad stops walking and Nate stops with him. He waits, considering. “Okay.”
Nate cocks his head, eyes crinkling at the corners. “Great.”
They walk the three blocks to the café in relative silence until Nate says, “So you’re at the academy, huh.”
“How’d you guess?”
“That haircut,” Nate says, touching the tip of his tongue to his teeth, completely ignoring Brad's sarcasm.
Brad nods. “Yeah. I guess it would give it away.”
“What’s that like?”
“Cutting my hair frequently? Tedious.”
“No, going to the academy,” Nate replies. They’ve reached the café, and Nate once again pulls the door open for him like Brad’s a lady. He shoots Nate a look and then goes through. He can tell Nate had to hold back a smile.
Nate waves him toward a table and says, “Sit down, I’ll bring you a drink. What would you like?”
“Water is fine.” Nate raises his brows and Brad sighs. “Iced tea then.”
Nate dips his head in acknowledgement and vaults over an empty section of the counter. Brad watches him talk and laugh with the barista on duty, a pretty girl with a short pixieish haircut, as he pours Brad an iced tea and makes an espresso for himself. Brad feels like he’s watching something intimate. He wonders of Nate and that girl are together. He’s not sure why he cares.
Nate returns a few moments later, face flushed. “So you didn’t answer my question,” he says.
Brad shrugs. “I’m joining the marines when I graduate.” He doesn’t mention that when his parents first enrolled him, he was assigned the most PT of any student in his year previous or after.
Nate lifts his chin. “So I guess you like it.”
Brad shrugs and takes a sip of the iced tea. It’s a little on the strong side and he makes a face at it. Nate wordlessly hands over a packet of sugar.
Brad realizes it’s his turn to talk. “Where are you going after you graduate?”
“From high school?” Nate says, above his little cup of espresso. “I just got into Dartmouth Early Decision.”
“Shoulda guessed, you have a patina of Ivy League hippie all over.”
Nate salutes with his cup and then opens up Brad’s bag. “Neal Stephenson, Cory Doctorow, Ken Scholes…” he reads each other title as he puts it out on the table. “Well, you just look like a massive dork.”
Brad snorts. He realizes he likes Nate. A lot. Nate looks down at his watch and starts. “I have to go. Thanks again.” He scoops his bag of books up and gets to his feet. He says, looking at him through half-lidded eyes. “See you around?”
Brad pauses for a moment and then says, “Sure.”
He doesn’t see Nate for weeks and weeks around town after that. He thinks about going into the coffee shop, because obviously Nate has to be there some time, but Brad just can’t bring himself. Instead, he throws himself into his exercises and training and goes home for the first time during the school year since he was in the 10th grade. The other kids go all the time, but Brad hasn’t wanted to for a long time.
He doesn’t feel any better there. The lack of structure is somehow disquieting and upsetting. And he likes his family, but they don’t really get him anymore. He knows his mom regrets sending him to the academy, even though they wanted to straighten him out. It worked, frankly. Maybe not the way they wanted, but that isn’t his fault.
He goes back to campus feeling relieved. The next weekend his mom asks if he wants to come home again, but he tells her he’s too busy. Instead he goes to a house party of one of the day students with a few friends intent on getting blindly drunk. Or at least that’s the plan.
“This party blows,” he says to Ray, staring at the crowd of his yearmates attempting to grind and guzzle large amounts of beer with the students from the girl’s school.
“There are girls here, dude,” Ray replies. “What more can you want?”
Brad shoots him a look. “I’m going to go.”
Ray looks prepared to whine at him, but he switches tactics abruptly. “Suit yourself,” he says and dives into the crowd. Brad rolls his eyes and pushes his way to the front door. It’s a warm night. He stares up at the sky for a moment and then decides to go for a walk down the quiet residential streets. Unbidden, his brain turns to Nate.
There’s another party going on only a few blocks away, the door opens and a bunch of loaded teens from the local high school stumble out, laughing. Brad shoves his hands into his pockets and shakes his head, intending to walk past. But somebody calls out his name. He turns his head and sees Nate, swaying drunkenly, balanced against somebody’s shoulder. The person almost drops him right on the sidewalk and Brad blows out a breath, walking over and dragging Nate’s arm over his shoulder so that he can stand upright.
Nate smiles, right into his face. “That was nice of you...” He rocks on his feet and says, “Want to go for a walk with me?”
Brad holds back a snort. “Sure. Where’s home?”
“Can’t go home. Not like this.” Brad sighs and Nate shoots him a coy look. “Don’t be upset…I am…I think about you all the time.”
Brad freezes, cold going down his spine. They’ve walked a significant distance away from the party, but Brad still looks around to see if anybody is close to them. Just as well because Nate follows it up with a dirty bomb. “Are you gay?”
Brad chokes and Nate reaches up and grips his bicep hard. “You’re just…you look at me all the time.”
Brad hadn’t realized Nate noticed. He tries to disentangle himself from Nate’s grasp, but Nate tightens his grip on Brad’s upper arm. “I wouldn’t have noticed…if I hadn’t been looking too.”
“I’m not ga—”
Nate interrupts him with a kiss. He’s sloppy with drunkeness, barely holding himself up, but the kiss has surprising finesse. Brad wants to thrust him away, punch him in the head. What the hell is Nate thinking?
He’s never…he’s never…but then he’s pushing Nate back into the rear door of a parked mini-van, thrusting a thigh between his legs. Nate’s eyelashes brush over his cheek when he changes the angle of the kiss, biting at his lower lip. Brad’s heart constricts, he feels a little bit like somebody just told him his mother died, but he can’t stop himself. He wants to lose himself, even as he knows he absolutely can’t.
Nate breathes hard against his mouth and ruts their hips together. It’s too much. Brad’s not ready for that. He steps back, putting a little distance between them. He keeps a hand on Nate’s shoulder to hold him up. Nate’s head nods on his shoulder, but he maintains eye contact.
“I’m not gay either…” he says finally. “But—” he starts.
“I’m joining the marines,” Brad replies, voice breaking.
Nate stares at him for a long moment, suddenly seeming to sober up. He picks up Brad’s other hand, threading their fingers together. Brad looks down at it. His skin is much darker than Nate's whose complexion clearly burns rather than tans. “Alright,” Nate says, like he’s comforting a small child. Brad tightens his fingers around Nate’s and then drops his hand.
Previous installments Here
So this time a fight breaks out somewhere when Nate and Brad are accompanying Nate’s sister out. Nate’s sister just attracts trouble. And Brad and Nate totally kick everybody’s ass, but Brad gets slashed across the back pretty bad and Brad is like…not taking care of it, and Nate finally bullies him into letting him take a look.
Nate gestured at the table with one hand Brad sat down stoically. The table wasn’t very high, but he was tall enough that his feet still touch the floor. This room wasn’t much in the way of an infirmary, but all the herbs were kept there, and a steady fire was kept burning in the corner. It had been the logical place to go.
Nate hissed when he peeled the heavy blood-sodden fabric off of Brad’s skin. The slash was deep and still wept blood freely. “It needs cauterizing,” he says softly, running his fingertips over the unbroken skin just above it. Brad’s skin was unbelievably soft. He knew he shouldn’t be touching him like this. Brad had made it clear he doesn’t want it and Nate would sooner die than force someone. Brad shifted under his touch and his tunic fell down low enough that Nate could see the dimples just above his ass. He pulled his hands back and swallowed. “You will have a scar.”
Brad huffed out a breath. “It will not be the first.”
Nate winced. The wound had to be cleaned first and after he stuck a hot iron into the fire to heat, he crushed gallium with a mortar and pestle and mixed it with freshwater before dipping a castoff skein of fabric into it. The muscles in Brad’s broad back spasmed as he gently swabbed the cloth over the wound. When he thought it was clean, he used the wet rag to pull the handle of the iron out of the fire. It took barely a second to run it over the wound, but it felt like an age. The hiss of hot iron against wet bloodied skin was almost unbearable. Brad didn’t make a sound but the muscles in his neck tightened, thrown into sharp relief in the dim lighting.
By the time Nate tossed the iron aside Brad was breathing hard, head bowed on his neck. Nate stared at him for a long moment, the planes of muscle in his back, the knob at the top of his spine where his head was bowed. He wanted to say something but everything was stuck in his throat. He decided finally it would be best to leave him, give him a few moments to himself. Brad was owed that much. But as he walked by, Brad’s arm snapped up, catching him around the wrist.
“Wait,” he said, urgently.
Nate turned back to look at him. Brad dropped his eyes, his striking blonde lashes lit up like gold when the firelight caught them. He shifted his grip on Nate’s wrist and ran his thumb over Nate’s pulse. Nate couldn’t help shivering. Brad raised his eyes again. “I want…” he says and cut himself off.
Nate hesitated for a long moment, holding Brad’s gaze, and then finally went for it, crowded between Brad’s thighs, catching his chin in his hands. “You can have.”
Brad let him kiss him. Nate had no illusions about this. Nevertheless, it was a victory. Brad’s mouth was surprisingly soft and yielding. Nate realized for all he had imagined and examined and worked himself to hardness thinking about that day in the atrium, that he remembered very little but the sound of Brad’s breaths in his ears and the harsh press of their bodies. The reality was better.
Brad ran his hands down Nate’s back, the sound of his fingers skimming over fabric the only noise in the quiet dark room. He pulled Nate closer to him, and Nate couldn’t help wrapping an arm around his neck, mindful of his wound. A moan broke its way past Nate’s lips and Brad bit at the corner of his mouth in response. It was like going too fast in a chariot. Nothing had ever felt like this. Memento Morii. Remember, you are but a man. Nate hooked his fingers inside the flimsy layer of Brad’s tunic, nails scraping over warm skin. He breathed hard through his nose, devoting all his attention to worrying at Brad’s lip and stroking over the long planes of his skin. He deliberately grazed the edge of his thumb against Brad’s flat nipple, savoring the small almost imperceptible way Brad’s hips jumped against his.
A sudden shattering sound forced them abruptly apart. Nate shot him a look, taking in Brad’s flushed face, his glassy blue eyes, the way he tightened his fists on the edge of the table. Nate shook himself and went out into the hall to see what had happened. A slave had dropped a jug of wine and was quickly picking the pieces up, cursing herself for her clumsiness. Nate shook his head and went back into the room. He found Brad, back turned to him, pulling his tunic back up over his shoulder.
“At least let me bind the wound!” Nate protested.
Brad’s gaze was flat and he said, “I should get back to your sister.”
Nate wilted inwardly. He stepped clear of the door so that Brad could pass him. “Yes, I imagine you should.”
On the day after they get the news about their deployment, he runs into the LT at the Haunted Head--the last place he would ever expect to see him. He’s bent over the pool table, tongue curled out of his mouth as he lines up a trick shot that sent the eleven, ten, and fourteen fanning out into three separate pockets. The LT looks up and sees Brad leaning against the bar, he grins lopsidedly and salutes with his bottle of Long Trail before taking a drink.
A girl comes up behind him, wraps her arms around the LT’s waist. She presses her cheek to his shoulder blades and closes her eyes. Brad can tell from the way the LT doesn’t even stiffen that they’ve known each other for a long time. Brad’s not leaving a girl behind. He can’t even really imagine it anymore. But it shows him that the things he knows about the LT he could probably count on one hand.
He turns back to the bar and shakes his head. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.
“Buy you a beer?” the LT says over Brad’s shoulder.
“Yeah, okay,” Brad replies, shifting to make room.
The LT slides onto the stool beside him and says, “What’ll you have?”
“Long Trail is good.”
The LT leans forward, elbows propped on the bar. “Can I have two more Long Trails, a shot of tequila, and a Blue Moon?” The bartender nods.
“Are you opening up a liquor store?” Brad replies.
The LT smiles, eyes crinkling at the corners and when the drinks come he slides over Brad’s Long Trail and tosses the tequila back with his other hand. He chases it with the beer. Brad blinks at him.
The girl appears at the LTs side again and the LT says, “Brad, this is my sister, Eileen.”
She offers her hand to shake, stretching into the LT’s space and making him move back with an affectionately exasperated smile. She’s got a firm grip and a great smile and the way she doesn’t let go of his hand until she absolutely has to tells him he could be in there in five if he wanted. He looks at the LT’s carefully mild expression and maybe he does want.
“Brad is one of my TLs,” Nate explains.
“Oh,” she replies, drawing out the word like she knows what that means. Brad grins.
Somebody across the bar calls out, “Hey Fick, got fifty bucks says you can’t sink that shot a second time.”
Nate turns around, grabs his bottle off the counter. “Oh yeah? Hope you don’t mind losing some of that monopoly money then.”
He heads back over to the pool table to argue good-naturedly with a couple of guys, leaving Brad and Eileen behind.
“So, how long have you known my brother,” she asks.
“Not that long, some of the guys in my platoon have known him a lot longer.”
“Hmm,” she replies. He can tell that the next words on her lips are going to be some variation of ‘but enough about my brother.’ And maybe she doesn’t know that both Brad and the LT are aware of her interest, or that her brother is an absolute saint for stepping off when she wants a guy like Brad, but Brad does know. And what Brad wants he can’t have, and he’s never been a settle-for-the-next-best-thing kind of guy.
“Tell your brother thanks for the beer,” Brad says, draining his bottle quickly.” It was nice to meet you.”
She cocks her head and then nods. “Sure, you too.”
She can roll with the punches, just like her brother. Brad nods back and heads for the door. He looks back one last time, thinking he’ll see the LT completely concentrated upon the table, but he’s not. He’s staring over his shoulder back at Brad, with that same mild expression on. It makes him snap his head forward again and head back out into the night. He doesn’t know what it means.
The LT always needs Trombley for something, running him around the camp, all these extra little menial duties that marines are used to taking care of for themselves. Nobody thinks it’s anything, because Trombley nearly deepsixed two fucking kids and he’s due a little hell. Only Ray seems to notice that it’s actually serving to keep Brad and Trombley as far apart as possible when they have to spend most of the day locked up in a HumVee together.
Trombley returns looking a little ragged and contrite and Ray shakes his head. Somebody should tell the LT to stop worrying. Brad’s not going to go all Texas Chainsaw Massacre on them.
“I think the LT wants to dick you…” Ray says after the LT drops off extra batteries.
Brad raises his eyebrows, and follows the LT giving batteries out to all the TLs with his eyes. “The LT apparently wants to dick a lot of people.”
“No, Brad, he is not looking at them like ‘my favorite cuddly bear got broke and I don’t know what to do but smile at it real hard through the tears.’ That shit, Brad, is a whole ‘nother ballgame.”
Brad shoots him a stone-faced look. Reporter leans forward in his seat and says, “Ray, you missed your calling as a yenta. Do you want to ask for your separation papers? I’m sure Godfather would love to have a matchmaker on board.”
Before Ray can respond with a simple fuck you, Walt’s giving him a little shove with his foot. “You can start with Chaffin and Manimal. They just need love, man.”
Ray grumbles back.
“Hey, Cuddly Bear,” a voice says, causing them all to straighten up in their seats with a jerk. The LT and Gunny are standing next to Brad’s door. Nate’s got a perfectly straight-face, but Gunny looks like he’s going to kill himself trying not to laugh. “Just wanted to let you know we're Oscar Mike in five.”
He turns around and walks off, Gunny trailing him.
“I think you can say goodbye to Iceman,” Reporter says. “You’re stuck with Cuddly Bear now.”
Trombley repeats it like he’s found a new toy, “Cuddly Bear, Cuddly bear.”
He only shuts up when Brad turns around and gives him another patented stone-faced glance. He turns back to Ray. “Corporal Person, be advised if such a thing were to pass, I will eviscerate you and string you up from the Mark 9 by your entrails. And I will go home and tell your mother how her son spent his last days as a goatfucker before we were forced to put him down.”
“Cuddly Bear’s angry!” Ray says, laughing. He ducks Brad’s swipe with a yelp.
Nate received the summons to the front two days after the rains started. He wasn’t ready to go. Something alien had taken up residence inside him, made his heart heavy at the thought of leaving. He had never been particularly attached to home, not like the men under his command who talked of their fruit orchards and their pretty wives, the best wine they missed almost as much as their children. He loved his family, but their absence was simply absence. This time was different. The summons had been unwelcome, rather than the promised adventure of previous campaigns.
As it rained, he lingered in the peristyle, just under the overhang, watching the packed earth turn to mud. It suited his mood.
“Your sister said I would find you brooding,” Brad’s accented voice startled him out of his thoughts. “She would like you to read to her.”
Nate breathed out through his nose and turned around. “You will have to teach me to walk as you do, Brad, so that I may startle others as affectively.”
“It is quite simple, you put one foot in front of the other,” Brad replied, lips quirked to show he was fighting a smile.
“Of course,” Nate said. “Would that it were so simple.” Something in his tone of voice caught Brad’s attention, because his chin lifted up and his impenetrable blue gaze narrowed. Nate shook himself. “Take me to my sister then. Best not to leave her waiting.”
The next few days were consumed with trips to the armorer and farrier. He needed a new saddle made in the current style, newly died chitons and tunics, and a sea of personal supplies and rations. He went out carousing with the young men he came of age with, simply because it was expected. The entire time he stared down into his wine and thought of Brad playing Tabula with his sister.
“Are you nervous, then?” Opiter asked, from across the table. “I thought nothing could shake you. Not even mighty Decebalus.”
“I am not afraid,” Nate replied, setting his cup aside and leaning his chin on his fist.
“A woman, then,” Tullus said, nudging his shoulder, “You’ve wedged yourself so firmly between her thighs, you fear to ever come out again.”
Nate snorted and took a long swallow, emptying his cup.
“Upon my life,” Tullus said, staring at him in wonder as he wiped his hand across his mouth. “It is a woman!”
“It is no woman,” Nate replied, disdainful.
“Unbelievable, Nate, the fool, has fallen in love!” he said, thumping the table with his fist in mirth. He called out to the friends who were gambling at knucklebones at another table, “Servitius, Decimus, you won’t believe this! Nate’s got himself a bit of skirt hidden away.”
Servitius and Decimus turned immediately, twin expectant expressions on their faces.
Nate dropped his head to the table. “Upon my life, how do I put up with you?”
Tullus laughed. “I’m wealthier than you are.”
He returned to the domus well past drunk. Servitius and Opiter had to help him down off his horse. “I detest you,” Nate said, arm slung over Servitius’ shoulder. “You and your never ending bottles of wine.”
Servitius gave him a good thump on the back, getting him through the front doors with the help of a slave. “Had to send you off in style, old friend. Kill some Dacians for us, will you?”
Nate snorted. “This…this is not style,” he struggled with the words. “This is excess.”
Laughing, his friends departed. The slaves tried to usher him back to his quarters, but Nate resisted, breaking free of their hold. “Leave me.” They stared at him for a moment, wary and unused to drunken behavior in the domus. Nate sighed. “I wish only to go to the peristyle.”
They backed off with raised hands and he pushed past them, forcing his way out into the night air. He slumped ungracefully over a bench. His spine felt like jelly. The air was cool for once. The humidity had broken with the rains. He lay back across the marble, staring up at the stars made visible by absent clouds. It seemed lonely. The horrible alien feeling returned.
“I thought the disturbance of my sleep might’ve been you,” Brad said, appearing at the open doors. He was backlit and Nate couldn’t make out his features at all. He groaned and tried to push himself up into a sitting position but gave up when his arms gave out. Brad snorted with amusement, stepping into the open colonnade. “I never would’ve thought you couldn’t hold your drink.”
Nate made a noise in the back of his throat and made an expansive gesture. “I rarely partake.”
Brad shook his head. Nate could almost fool himself that the gesture was affectionate. “Your sister said you should’ve been bound to the Collegium Pontificum.”
“She is…young and foolish,” Nate replied, struggling. As he continued his words gained surety. “When you have seen the evils of drink, the way a sore head after a long night can turn the entire tide of a battle, or a man against his companion, or a husband against his wife…” Brad’s face was expressionless. He sank to the ground, back leaned up against Nate’s bench. Nate felt like he needed to say something. “We both know I’m no priest.”
He decided he wanted to be on the ground beside Brad, but it ended badly, tangling himself up in his own tunic, landing hard on his knees. Brad chuckled softly as he grunted and fought to right himself. Brad pulled him back up with a solid tug on Nate’s arm. He didn’t let go, even when Nate was solidly seated.
“I…” Nate started. Brad interrupted him by pressing his mouth to Nate’s. Nate made a noise in the back of his throat and deepened the kiss, one clumsy hand coming up to frame Brad’s face. He had dreamed of this. Dreams that had left him aching, spilling into his bedclothes like a youth. Brad tugged on the arm he still had in his possession, drawing Nate onto his body so that he lay between Brad’s thighs. It was an emasculating position, leaned up against Brad’s chest like a fragile maiden, but Nate felt no loss of dignity. He simply continued kissing Brad, tangling their tongues together, memorizing the soft skin of his vulnerable throat, the taste of his mouth, the way their fingers interlaced--Brad’s callused palm as rough as his own.
Brad pulled his mouth away and Nate cried out in frustration. “I forget myself. You forget yourself,” he said in response, turning his head away as Nate sought to kiss him again.
“I don’t care,” Nate replied, turning Brad’s head to look at him. “Not tonight. Tomorrow I will care. But not…” He captured Brad’s mouth again. Kissing him hard, because for the first time, he really understood he might not come back. He might not ever see Brad again. Nate shoved him onto the ground, holding him down with a hand placed in the middle of Brad’s chest that somehow remained steady like he expected a struggle. Brad didn’t struggle.
Nate stroked a thumb over Brad’s lower lip, dipping the tip into his mouth. He couldn’t see the color of Brad’s eyes in this light, but he imagined the precise shade of crystal they would be. “If I am seen, what else is there to do? I must already go.”
He raised himself to his knees over Brad, straddling him. He reached down to tangle his fingers into Brad’s subligaculum, fighting the fabric until his fingers found a way inside. He wrapped his fist around Brad’s cock, taking in the way Brad moaned, back arched off the ground.
“When was the last time you took yourself in hand?” Nate asked, pulling back the foreskin and pushing the knuckle of his thumb just under the head. Pre-come spurted against his fingers. Nate did it again and Brad’s hips jerked, unbidden. He cried out a second time, expression so far from the tight control Nate had always witnessed. It made his chest tight. He started to stroke--a slow punishing glide up and down Brad’s perfect cock. Perfect like everything about him.
“The cautery,” Brad whispered back, voice harsh, breaths coming faster. Nate smiled, warmth rushing down his spine. It wasn't just him then. He ducked forward, sealing their mouths together as he continued stroking. Brad bit at his lips and palmed Nate’s ass, fingers kneading into the flesh almost to the point of pain when Nate flicked his thumb into the slit.
He came with a cry into Nate’s mouth, one hand flying up to still Nate’s moving wrist. They remained like that for a long moment. Silence punctuated by their ragged breaths. Nate nuzzled Brad’s cheek before finally rolling himself off all his determined grace leaving him.
“You don’t want—” Brad started and then stopped. It was the first time Nate had ever heard him sound tentative.
Nate sighed. “I couldn’t even if I wanted to,” he said, and lifted his head to look down his body before dropping back to the ground again.
Brad laughed. He actually laughed. Nate threw out a careless arm, thumping him across the chest. “Shut up.” Brad caught his hand, fingers tight over Nate’s pulse point. He gentled his grip, fingers sliding across the skin over and over in a gesture that was meant to be tender, but was more of a torture in Nate’s current state.
“I wish that you were my slave,” Nate said, staring up at the stars once more.
“So that you could take me with you?”
Nate turned to him in surprise. He blinked and shook his head. “So that I could free you.”
Brad’s face was back to its classic impenetrable mask, but it softened under Nate’s gaze. “You wish an impossible thing.”