I was just going to link to my lj for this, BUT, my heart will always be with fp. c: Anyway, the basic rundown is this: I wrote this for novel_bigbang over at livejournal. My beta was cali_cowgirl08 and my artist was mella68. Since I haven't gotten any sort of link to the art, yet, I'll just put the masterpost here and the masterpost'll be updated when I get it. c: postnotice(dot)livejournal(dot)com(slash)50179(dot)html . Obvs you'll need to replace the words in parentheses with the correct mark, but since fp doesn't allow linking, this'll hafta do.

ONE

"My wife's overseas in Africa. Helping the needy… mostly working with children."

It's been so long since he first told that lie that I don't have to be near him to know what he's saying anymore. His mouth moves with the practiced expertise of a man hiding his identity from his coworkers, his body language relaxed to the untrained eye. He looks happy, the smile on his face clearly forced, but the men and women around him don't seem to think it's fake.

Someone asks how long she'll be there. "She's been there about a year, now. They've been saying for six months that they'll fly her home soon… But she likes it there, I think."

And she would, if she were really in Africa, if the two of you were really married, if she really existed. But she doesn't. You've been very good about keeping up appearances, though, and no one has questioned you about her being in Africa, because no one wants to be the asshole that calls wolf on someone helping out starved children, real or not.

"So, Mark," Karen says, grasping my forearm, red fingernails barely grazing at the fabric of my jacket. "You've been with Megan for… four years, now?" She bats her eyelashes and takes a long drink of champagne. "I'd say that it's time to set a date, wouldn't you?"

Swallowing, I offer her a shaky smile. She only blinks in return, staring at me with the sort of expression that suggests she knows something. "You're probably right," I tell her, turning away, back to Steven. He's starting to sweat, beads forming on his forehead.

"Isn't it your anniversary next month?" she asks, gripping my forearm tighter. "Five years together, two without a wedding date…"

Steven catches my glance, nodding his head slightly, lips twitching up into a half smile. I hardly have time to return it before one of his superiors grabs him by the shoulder and steers him off in a different direction.

"With all due respect, Karen," I say, turning my attention back to her, "I'd really rather keep this between Megan and me."

Karen doesn't take the bait, instead linking her arm with mine and heading towards Megan, who's speaking with a few of the wives of Army personnel at a far end of the table. "Women want that stability, Mark. Even military women."

I can't imagine that Megan wants anything like what 'regular' women want, but it won't hurt to agree with her on this, so I do. Admitting that men are terrible in front of a group of women makes me look like a fake, but agreeing with one only shows I realize when I make mistakes.

Which I don't. Not until it's too late, at least, and nothing can be done to reverse the damage. It's the reason I thought Megan was crazy when she enlisted. It's the same reason I didn't enlist with Steven six years ago.

"Ah, Mark," Megan says, standing up as Karen and I approach the table. "I was just going to come find you. I have that flight in the morning, you know?"

Flight. She's talking about the flight to Seattle, where her real fiancé lives.

God, this is all so fucked up.

"Sure," I reply, nodding and waving at the other women. Steven's closer now, but no less surrounded by people, and as much as I want to let him know, personally, that we're headed out, I can't do it. It'd look too weird, and as much as I wish I didn't have to worry about it—that he didn't have to worry about it—we do. Fishing the keys out of my pocket, I tell her, "You remember where we parked?"

She nods, grabbing my keys from my hand. "Next to the asshole in the bright yellow Hummer, right?"

"Right. I'll be out in a minute, I'm just going to hit the bathroom." There's no reason for me to other than I need to take the last six hours of Army Party-Event-Gala-Ball-Whatever-The-Hell-This-Is off of my face. I feel far too tired for a man that isn't even enlisted. That only asks more questions than it answers, and it doesn't answer many.

The bathroom's surprisingly empty when I get there. The last time I came in, there were at least half a dozen men waiting to use the bathroom. Now, no lines, no prying eyes, no suppressed urges…

Not that it matters or anything, because, well—the way things look, it's not like the plethora of suppressed urges at these things, or in the Armed Forces at all, will end any time soon.

The sinks aren't dingy like the one in my apartment. I'm not surprised or anything; the Army is quick to provide the best for these events, even if it means cutting down on… paychecks or supplies or whatever else they might have to cut down on just to look good for a few nights every year.

The door to the bathroom opens just as I turn on the faucet and start splashing water onto my face. It's cold, takes a good thirty seconds to start warming up, but it isn't something I get to really focus on this time.

"You and Megan heading out, then?"

Steven's busying himself with locking the bathroom door, rubbing over his head with the other hand.

"Yeah. She's, uh… my ride home, you know, and she has a flight in the morning, so…"

His throat bobs as he swallows, stepping towards me slowly. Faintly, I can hear the water running in the background, but it's hard to focus on anything else when there's six feet of heavily-muscled Steven Reese coming at me. I'm not sure what I expect him to say—his mouth opens and closes, lips twitching on words he must not be able to catch. Instead, he grips my tie with one of his hands, eyes downcast.

Before I can stop myself, his name comes out in a breath. "Look…"

My words break him from his thoughts, and his hand drops back to his side. "I'll see you soon?" he asks, backing up already towards the door.

I think about telling him to wait, about getting him to stay just for a few seconds, but I don't. "Yeah," I say instead. My voice sounds nothing like I want it to, instead coming out all breathless and full of the disappointment I didn't know existed anymore. "Goodnight, Steven."

His hands fumble with the lock, and he glances halfway over his shoulder, working his jaw on silence, and nods his head once. "Goodnight."

The door slams shut behind him, sounding almost final in its weight.

The water still runs behind me.

For a long while, I stand, staring at the door, wondering if he'll come back and give me a proper goodbye, something a little less depressing, but he doesn't. Instead, one of the lower personnel enters, laughing on his cell phone.

"Oh, uh, sorry," he says, pulling his phone down and looking at me. "I didn't—are you all right?"

For a split second, all the things that I am and I'm not run through my head, jumbled into an ugly ball of unspoken words and emotions, and the guy at the door's looking at me strangely. "Fine, thank you."

He opens the door for me after reminding me about the still-running water. "I might suggest a night of sleep, if I knew you better." He looks like he's biting down over-polite words.

My chuckle comes out dry and desperate. I hate the effects nights like these have on me. "I would, too. Thanks again."

He shrugs, closing the door and heading back to his cell phone.

Megan has the car parked right out front, engine idling, AC loud in the silence of outside, even in the middle of the city. She's rubbing at her feet in the driver's seat, cursing under her breath. "These damn shoes," she says when I open the passenger door. "I swear to God, one day, I'm going to show up in something that aren't these damn shoes and the fuckers that make military dress wear and the fuckers that enforce military dress code are just going to deal with it."

She's been saying this since the first time she had to attend one of these events, and it's hard to believe her after so long. It's hard to believe it's been six years already since Steven joined—but then, it's hard to believe Megan's been in the Army for a decade already, and when the hell did we all get so old? I still remember getting drunk off the pier at Steven's grandparent's like it was yesterday.

"Mark," she says, reaching over with her hand, the one that was just rubbing the soreness from her foot, and plants it on my knee. "You don't have to go to these, you know."

Except I do. At least, it feels like I do. "I know," I say, rubbing at my nose. "It's just…" The words don't come out, as much as I want them to form.

She sighs, removing her hand from my knee and dropping it to the steering wheel. "I'm just saying, if it's going to put you in this slump every time…"

Not every time. The first two years were fun, really—the people were nice, the drinks were great, and it was easy to pretend and find out just how far was too far with these people. It's just… "It's hard to lie," I finally say, the words coming out awkward and dry and full of all the emotion I really hadn't wanted to admit to.

Megan's response comes in the form of twisting the radio dial to some rock station. In a way, I'm grateful—nothing I say about this makes me feel better, and words can't help in this case, anyway.

After a long and silent drive across the city, Megan drops me off at my apartment, without so much as another word on the subject. "I'll call you before I leave tomorrow. Let you know when I land. I'll get you a shot-glass from Canada, maybe, if you stop moping around."

"Canada?" I ask, staring down at the cubby between the front seats and trying not to think about how Steven and I can barely walk outside together without him worrying. "Wow."

"Yeah, wow. Head up, McNamara," she says, smiling at me in the thin light from the moon. "Now get out of my car."

The apartment complex is empty, quiet, only the room at the opposite end of my hallway making any noise, and even that I can only hear because the couple that lives inside are fucking against the door.

On nights like this, it's hard to shrug back jealousy of people that can be themselves behind closed doors. Steven's… so unlike normal people in that regard.

Randall whines when I open the door to my apartment, lifting his head from his lonely space on the couch before he lays back down and resumes sleeping. He's Steven's dog, really, but after a year and a half when he was stationed out of the country and couldn't make it home, he placed him in my care.

It's nice to have someone, sometimes. Even if the 'someone' is a dog.

A crack of thunder shakes my floor, and Randall whines again, jumping from the couch to go lie in my bed. I follow him, turning on and shutting off lights as I go, not really out of any purpose other than something to do with my hands while I'm walking.

There are pictures on the wall—bright, smiling faces of my family and Steven and Megan and friends I made in college, Randall slobbering up the lens on a few of them. There's a picture of Steven and I next to the door, nothing special. It's the only one Steven would let me put up, worried that if something happened to him, if he couldn't come home or if he went missing, that someone would need to search my apartment and they'd find it, and…

He never could finish the thought.

The real pictures, the ones of the two of us actually looking like a normal couple, are in my mother's basement, stored away there because Steven never lets himself anywhere near my mother, probably out of fear of what she might say to him, worried that he might actually take her advice and give a nice "fuck you" to the United States Army and give into the life he's always wanted, but the Army doesn't allow him to have.

Well, a guy can dream, right? It's only a mater of time before the Army takes that away from him, too, I suppose.

Randall whines against his paws when I try to pull back the covers later. "Come on, Randall," I say. "Steven will be over later. I promise, you can whine and cry and slobber all over him at how horrible a… dog-parent I am when he gets here."

He whines again, but jumps off the bed and circles around, waiting until I'm curled under sheets to lay his head on the edge of the bed. "Randall… Please? Just—a few hours, that's all I'm asking for."

He barks before I'm even finished with my sentence, off to the other room to investigate some sound I hadn't heard. I ignore it. Whatever's going on, Randall's a big dog—whoever's out there will either be Steven or terrified by the huge, slobbering beast come to check things out.

I'm almost disappointed to find out it's Steven.

"Hey," he says softly, the bed sinking with his weight. "You awake?"

"Yeah," I answer after only a moment's hesitation in which a thousand asshole-y answers cross my mind. It isn't Steven's fault, though, as much as I blame him for it. "You didn't stay?"

"Two a.m., I figured they'd gotten enough out of me."

"You deserve another promotion," I tell him before I can think better of it. I don't want to encourage him, even though I should, because encouraging him just pushes him farther away from me. "I mean…"

His hand smoothes down the blanket across my torso. "I know," he says. "I won't get another promotion for…" He sighs. "Maybe I won't get another promotion."

"Right," I say with a snort that hurts my sinuses, "Major Reese, the man that risks his life to save anybody he possibly can and still actually obeys orders, not getting a promotion." He turns away, but leaves his hand on my stomach. "You're full of shit, you know that?"

Steven's silent for a long time. I can barely make out his body rising and falling as he breathes. "Gonna sleep on the couch," he manages to grunt out, raising the hand on my stomach to his forehead instead.

"Come on, asshole—now you're just being ridiculous," I tell him. He turns back to me before he stands up, and if I don't say it now, I won't ever say it. "Look, whatever issues you have with the fucktards in the Army, leave 'em at the door. All right? I've put up with this for six years. Nobody can see anything that goes on in my apartment. If they could, don't you think somebody would have, you know, mentioned it by now?"

Steven's voice almost breaks as he says my name. "You don't get it."

"Oh, I think I get it."

"You're asking me to—"

"I'm asking you to stop being such a fucking wuss about us and man up when you're behind closed doors. It's not like your commanding officer is going to waltz into my fucking bedroom at two a.m. on a Friday night!"

He lets out a shaky sigh. "I…"

I really shouldn't be so short with him or pissed off, because I know how hard this is for him—I see him deal with it every day, and I should just be the supportive partner, who listens when he doesn't say anything and takes over when he doesn't care enough about himself, who doesn't ask questions and tells all the lies he wants to hear even if I don't want to say them, because that's what I should do. That's what all of the other husbands and wives and fiancés do when they marry into the Armed Forces. They support, because sometimes that's all they can do.

"It isn't an ultimatum, Steven," I tell him.

"I know," he says, and stands up.

I fall asleep before I see him again.

Three hours later, five in the morning, I wake up to half-hearted screaming. I'm tumbling out of bed before I can even register it as screaming, down the hall and into the living room, on my knees next to the couch, groping for Steven, already saying soothing words and phrases I don't believe in, but it's all about the tone and the touch, or so I've heard, but—

Steven isn't there.

Bedroom. They're coming from the bedroom.

"Steven!"

It's always a rough time getting him to calm down from his nightmares—he thrashes and screams even after he's awake, and it isn't often I come out of it without bruises or a bloody nose.

"Steven," I say, shaking his broad shoulders, trying to sound soothing despite being terrified out of my mind. For a split second, he's still, then his hands fly everywhere, and I know better than to try to pin them, him, down, so I just talk louder, still trying to sound soothing, rubbing at his shoulders, talking inanely until he decks me in the face and stops screaming.

He sits upright in bed. The alarm clock crashes to the floor as he tries to turn on the light, breathing heavily and searching the room. "Mark," he says, voice raspy, when he finally meets my eyes. "Did I…"

"Not a big deal," I tell him, because it isn't, because he's awake and okay and…

His voice breaks when he apologizes.

"It's fine." It is, probably. There's blood, everywhere, it seems like, but it always looks worse than it really is. Steven's rubbing at his face, staring down at the twisted sheets on his lap, taking deep, steadying breaths and not looking at me. I'm not sure what to say to him.

While he's gathering his wits about him, I push myself off the floor and head towards the bathroom, using my t-shirt to collect the blood dripping from my crushed nose. The floorboards squeak behind me—Steven stands in the doorway, watching as I wet a washcloth and press it to my nose.

I can see him in the mirror—he's pointedly looking at the blood all over my chest, eyebrows furrowed with concern, despite this not actually being the first time I've had a bloody nose—not even the first time he's given me one.

"Go back to bed," I tell him, closing my eyes for a moment. Blood drips down from the washcloth and onto the countertop, making a quiet splat when it hits the surface. I open my eyes. "I got it covered."

Steven blanches, his hands twitching at his sides. "Mark—"

"I'm fine."

He frowns, but nods curtly and returns to the other room. No sense in getting him worked up again, especially when there's nothing to be worked up over. It doesn't even hurt.

Fifteen minutes later, when the bleeding has stopped completely, I return to my bedroom. My mouth still tastes like iron from the blood that ran down the back of my throat, but it's not so bad.

Steven's sitting on my side of the bed, staring down at his hands, turning them over slowly.

"I—" he starts, then chokes on his words. Swallowing, I only stare down at him. "—hate doing that to you."

"I know."

He glances up at me, quickly at first before his eyes are downcast again, then he sighs and stands up. "I don't—" know how to stop it.

"I know." He takes a deep breathe through his nose, reaching his hand out tentatively. "I'm not going to break, Steven."

He nods jerkily, resting one hand on my shoulder, the other cupping the back of my neck. His lips move, but no words come out, eyes darting around the room like he's waiting for something to catch his eye. "It… I was—my dream, I was—"

I shake my head, dizziness settling in quickly. "You don't have to tell me anything." And he doesn't; talking doesn't help either one of us, not like it should anyway, and it's so difficult to get him to choke out a sentence he feels comfortable with that it'd be less painful to have nails hammered under my fingernails. Forcing emotion where it doesn't come naturally isn't beneficial. Unfortunately, very little of Steven's emotion comes naturally. It's not even the Army—I can't remember a time when he wasn't like this.

Steven, in that broken voice of his, shakes his head and apologizes again.

"Don't," I tell him. He shouldn't be apologizing; there's no reason for him to apologize for trying to protect himself, even if it's upsetting that, in sleep, his mind sees me as a threat.

It's not me; I know that much, and I know Steven can't help it, but… Sometimes, I just think it'd be easier if we didn't have to deal with this at all.

He nods, pulling me close and dropping his head to my shoulder, arms wrapping around my waist. I'm still wearing the bloodied shirt, but he doesn't seem to notice. Not sure what to do, I let my arms hang, listen to his breathing against my ear.

"Next month," he says hoarsely. His grip tightens around my waist. "They're, y'know." He clears his throat. "They're shipping me out again."

The breath I'd been holding in comes out slowly. "Next month." He nods. Okay, I can do this. I can be supportive and loving and, and not at all upset. I can do it. "That's… That's not so bad. I mean, it's a month, so… We'll make the best of it. Four weeks." I breathe in, out, slowly, trying to calm down before he can catch up with my thought processes.

He'll make it back this time, too. He's got to.

"Except—not four weeks."

"You just said you had a month—"

Steven says, "I have to leave on Sunday. Two-week annual training. You remember."

Yeah, I remember. And then, two weeks after that, he's back out again. It's bad enough that he's out a weekend every month or every two months or however often the Army has him back under their control for 'training' or whatever they want to call it, plus sending him wherever the hell they want for no shortage of reasons… I shouldn't complain—I really, really shouldn't, which is why I don't ever say it to Steven, because guilt trips don't exactly make things better, but…

"Yeah, I remember," I tell him after he prompts me again, finally bringing my arms up to rest across his back. His shaky sigh sends shivers down my spine. "Hey, it's fine."

He snorts, murmurs something against my shoulder, probably something about how it doesn't matter if it's fine or not, because he's got to go—not exactly something he can decide if he wants to go or not.

"We'll make it work," he says, and the buzz in my veins stills barely enough to notice. He's rubbing his fingers against my back, tracing lines.

I'd take comfort in that, knowing that he's still invested in us, but it sounds like he's trying to convince himself.