Title: "Fake Empire (Or Five Times Nathaniel Fick Wanted to be One of the Guys)"
Character/Pairing: Fick, 2nd Platoon
Spoiler: "Combat Jack"
Summary: The only thing that matters is protecting the team.
Disclaimer: Not mine, just borrowing them for a few paragraphs.
Author's Note: While attending The National's SummerStage show in Central Park earlier this summerI was struck by sudden inspiration, during a gorgeous performance of "Fake Empire," to write more "Generation Kill" fic. I'm not through with Brad Colbert, but I decided to tackle our sadsack LT instead. Also, I'm apparently only able to write Five Times fics for GK – it's been a lot of fun so far, and I hope to write more. Title courtesy of The National. I hope you enjoy.
I. Waltzing at Mathilda
There's a rhythm to coordinating a mission, a method to harmonizing humvees and supply trucks and air support into a synchronized machine of death and destruction. If one victor falls behind, if one man is hit – it could mean the end of the line for the other twenty-two.
Bravo Two slides into formation at the sendoff, vehicles lined up neat and orderly before they move out. Nate files down the line and checks off his dance card one by one. He wishes Two-One-Alpha luck, pauses at Two-One-Bravo because Lilley is new to the game and has too much heaped on his plate; he's smiling to himself by the time he reaches Two-Two and one of the feathers clinging defiantly to Reyes' kevlar tickles his cheek as he pokes his head through the open window.
"Good luck, gentlemen," he says and Rudy mumbles something about the right kind of dharma. He repeats his mantra to Colbert when he treads back up the line, and Brad nods his head in return. He likes having Brad to lead, to guide the others through the steps he's still learning himself. He feels unsteady as he treads back to his vehicle, boots grinding into sand older than time itself, responsibility weighing down his shoulders; he's unsure of where to put his hands or move his feet. He's glad to have Brad's fingers lingering at his waist, gripping his palm, setting the pace. He's glad he isn't doing this alone.
He replays the moves in his head before he issues the order to move Oscar Mike, all the things that can go right and all the things that can go wrong. He's had six weeks to get the beat just right, teach his men the steps and maneuvers, hope their final bow doesn't involve a body bag.
He prays he learns before the jig is up.
The training exercise runs like a middle school dance: well intentioned, but poorly executed. Lilly takes one for the team but the others don't recover and Nate hears a rumbling in his ears as Two-One-Bravo falls behind. It's a test, a dry run, practice before the prom, but it's all the same to Nate. He can't bear the thought of telling one mother he lost her son; he knows he won't endure twenty-three lives searing his conscience.
His grunts whoop and cheer in the aftermath, crack jokes and rag on one another, and it's like static buzzing in his ears. They laugh because they got to blow up a broken down truck; he worries because Garza and Jacks have had one run at the 50.cal and next time the trucks will be shooting back. He shivers in the hot sun, all those mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers sending beads of sweat dripping down his spine.
He lets his men blow off steam, their excited voices lilting in the breeze, while he calls for after action with his leaders, his guides, the men that have done more and know more and still look to him with open, earnest eyes. He squares his shoulders, directs them through the motions the way he was taught.
He isn't ready but it doesn't matter. War doesn't wait for leaders.
The rocks, debris – memories of another war, another time, another fight for freedom – waltz around one another in the ancient dirt. His words trickle from his lips in a slow, even gait, and he watches the men's heads nod and bob in rhythm to the stones slugging through the sand. He talks about the trial run, the man that fell under his watch, and is proud of the steady flow of his voice, the even tempo of his tongue as he urges them to make sure it doesn't happen for real.
It's Brad who breaks the pattern, brings to light Nate's two left feet, forces a lull in his desperately earned rhythm. He suggests an alternate plan and Nate likes what he sees, likes the guarantee that one man might take a bullet but still come home in (mostly) one piece, likes the thought of never having to tell a mother he lost her child.
He watches the pieces move gracefully under Brad's command and he wishes he knew the steps. Brad's fingers still on one of the dancers and he looks to Nate for answers; the others follow suit. He feels the burn at the back of his throat, the roaring in his ears because he's supposed to be the instructor and it's the student schooling him when it counts most.
It's Gunny Wynn who sets things right with the briefest nod. Wynn is never flashy, never steals center stage, always content with Nate playing the lead. Nate wishes his own feet felt as secure in the spotlight, every pair of eyes trained on him. He follows Gunny's opening and praises Brad's plan, stores the new steps away in the back of his mind, holds them close for the moment he knows he'll need them (even though he wishes he could forget them). The men scatter and chatter as they amble through the sand to their vehicles, heading back to Mathilda to eat and wash and hold tight to civilization while they can. Nate worries that some of them might never see it again.
Nate watches them carefully, eyes never leaving their backs. He feels a bit like he's standing on the eve of his prom without a date, heading into the biggest night of his life with no one by his side.
He told them not to let emotion take over but he's the one left quaking in his boots, desperately struggling to find his footing.
II. Respecting the Pajamas
Al Gharraf comes to him as if in a dream.
It rises from the yellow and gold streaked desert in shades of blue and gray, like a permanent night descending from an unyielding day. The streets are near silent as the humvees prowl, creeping slowly through lazy alleys and boulevards. He feels a bit like he's snug in his ranger grave, replaying the day's events and tomorrow's possibilities behind closed eyelids, predicting the problems lying in wait in phantom streets. In his dreams, the enemy is always there but never seen; in reality, he's always waiting for the cry when that first bullet slices through something other than metal.
The whisper of the encroaching shamals blow fine dust across his cheeks, grit clinging to his skin and catching between his teeth and coating every exposed inch of him in grime. The sun is sinking lower in the sky as the column winds its way through the town and he watches it fall deeper into the endless berms and dunes, painting the buildings with milky shades of orange and red. The city seems foreign in such a primeval place, an urban blight in a world otherwise frozen in time.
The city unfolds in the dreamscape of his mind, the only sound the rumbling of the humvees creeping along its streets. There should be noise, people, the rhythm of daily life filling the roads, children laughing and women gossiping, but there's only eerie silence. It feels like the city is lying in wait, ready to spring and attack and destroy.
A mosque passes before them, a crumbling palace of gray stone and blue windows, rising from the corroded streets below. Islam is older than all the men in the platoon combined, but nothing is older than war. It shouldn't surprise him when light flashes before his eyes right where the two meet. The humvee winds around a corner, and Nate pauses for a moment, admires the beauty, the stained-glass windows and the intricately patterned stone walls, just as the muzzle flash peaks from behind a shattered pane of glass.
He wakes from the dream.
The world around him erupts in bursts of light and sound and death. The radio springs to life and he struggles to hear over the roar of the bullets flying, the buildings evaporating, his heart thundering a mile a minute in his chest. His finger never leaves the trigger, even squeezes off a round or two as Gunny steers them through hell.
Humvee One finds itself tangled in wires and Nate has to swallow the bile that coats his throat with the memory of his words. "Nobody stops, nobody gets cut off." He repeats them again and again in his head, trigger finger itching to their rhythm, while the column stops and twenty-three lives hinge on the expertise of three; he can only pray they learned enough at Matilda to see them through.
Colbert knows what to do and soon Hasser is back on the big gun, the column pushing hard for salvation outside the city walls. Nate hits a man, watches him fall, feels the life squeeze out of him, and forces himself to think "rather him than me." Nate Fick wasn't born to kill, but the El-Tee has to get the job done. He screams into the radio and urges his men forward, silently begs them to make the right decisions and spare him the wrath of a grieving mother.
He begs them to spare him from himself.
Another success story, another celebration, another moment of glory that isn't open to Nate.
His men – all of them – laugh and clap each other's backs in the dying sun, wrapping their arms fast and tight around one another just to make sure they're all there. He squints into the fading light, blinking sand out of his eyes, and runs a tentative hand down his side to make sure he's still whole. He can hear the laughter, see the smiles, but he's not quite sure it wasn't all a dream. When Sgt. Major Sixta breaks through the fog and pushes the grooming standard to the forefront of his mind, he's not sure it happened at all.
He wants to join the circle of celebration, laugh and scream and howl at the approaching moon that he got lit up but lived to do it all over again. He wants to feel the added weight of Reyes' arm on his shoulders, hear Person's off-key notes ring in his ears, cringe at the foulness of Colbert's jokes.
He nods at the Sgt. Major, calls Lovell and Jacks and Patrick and half the platoon in for a huddle. "The mustaches have to go, gentlemen," he says and holds up a hand when the groans and grimaces start. "We lived through today," he adds. "Let's be happy with that."
He walks back to his humvee and the shamal gusts fresh and cool over his clean-shaven face. He picks up a shovel to dig his grave – tomorrow is another day.
III. Passing Accurate Information
Captain Schwetje tries to kill his company and it's up to Nate to save the day.
Nate didn't join the military to play the part of superhero; he doesn't want the glory. He just wants to bring his men home.
He knows he's an idealist, is acutely aware of the naivety in his eyes that rivals the youth of his face. He knows he's different from the others, the Baptistas and Trombleys who joined to get out or get away; he knows he joined because he believed it was his duty to make a difference.
With his hand clasped around his C.O.'s radio, his only thought is the storm of artillery about to rain down around them. He forgets about protocol, about the chain of command; he forgets that he's twenty five years old and leading men to near certain death while his college friends still sleep till noon and throw down gold cards at Suede. The only thing going through his mind is the twenty-three men counting on him to get them through.
He locks his fingers tighter and ignores Sgt. Griego buzzing in his ear. He doesn't notice the weight piling onto his shoulders; his only concern is Lovell and Bryan's worries gnawing on his soul. Cpt. McGraw screams across the comms as he heads back to the column, and he forces himself to hold his head higher, back open and exposed to the hostile town closing in on them. It doesn't feel much different than the wrath he knows is waiting for him from command.
The walk back to his humvee feels like forever, and the heat of Schwetje's glare burns hotter and brighter than the Iraqi sun. He sees his men lined up along a low wall, rifles trained and guns ready for the first sign of flashes. Person calls it in and the men respond in force, just like a lifetime ago at Mathilda.
His shoulders stand a bit straighter as he heads for the reporter crouched behind his vehicle. Wright is an outsider looking in, and he longs to ask him what he thinks of the war, the grooming standard obsession and the trial by fire missions and the artillery poised to land on their heads. He longs to ask him if he thinks he did the right thing, breaking the chain of command and turning on his own. He longs for someone to tell him it's okay to ask questions when he knows his answer is the way to go.
The big guns blow up a building and do the dirty work while he crouches behind a humvee with the Scribe. He's never been one for violence but he longs to take out the enemy to keep his men safe.
It's the only answer he always knows is right.
IV. Three Wise Men
Nate does believe history repeats itself, but he doesn't believe that history repeats itself in the exact same way.
The religion is the same and language often spoken, but Iraq is far different than Afghanistan. He feels the weight of history here, the repeated motions, the sense that time stands still while the same events unfold for different people. The cradle of civilization hasn't changed much since the dawn of time, constantly falling prey to new peoples and new conquests but always holding on. He guesses it must be in the people's blood, like the DNA that decides the color of their hair or the shape of their nose, this will to survive and endure.
The strong do what they can and the weak must suffer the consequences. He read those words a long time ago, when he was still in college and his parents were paying the bills and his biggest worry was getting busted for the thermos of coffee he snuck into the Stacks. He doesn't know which side he claims, what kind of leader he makes, how his actions will roll down on those counting on him.
He offers to play look out, pay his dues, keep watch over his men when his days keeping them safe may be numbered. Mike takes up residence beside him, following him into the fire no matter how much it burns, and doesn't say a word of complaint about the ammo boxes digging through their MOPP suits or the NVGs pressing painfully against the bridges of their noses.
They watch the clouds move through the sky, casting streaks of pale moonlight over the desert. When the Spartans camped before an ancient battlefield, ready to destroy the Athenians who would one day be their brothers, Nate knows they watched the same sky. Somewhere behind their lines, Schwetje and Griego are sleeping beneath it too.
Booted feet clomp down the MSR, thumping along the asphalt, ringing through the night. Nate pushes his NVGs up his forehead and blinks a few times before meeting Poke, Pappy, and Lovell's eyes in the familiar dark. Mike breaks the coming tension with a few easy jokes, but Nate catches the meaning in his words. The magi came to greet their savior with grandiose presents; in the Marines, there's no greater gift than a man's loyalty.
He wants to return their favor, clasp their hands in his and tell them how much he appreciates their sacrifice. But he remembers the rule of history, can hear the roar of battle on the Peloponesus when the Greeks turned on each other. He's knows how civil war can destroy a people; he doesn't want to see it first hand. Nate Fick doesn't curse but the El-Tee does and he throws in a couple choice words to emphasize how final his decision is.
He disappears down a berm before he loses it all together, because he needs to be strong so the weak can rely on him, and the thud of his boots is muffled by the eternal sand. There's chatter over the radio, but the night is quiet enough to hear Mike spell it out for them. He listens because he can't watch, because if he sees the regret and embarrassment in Bravo Two's eyes he knows he'll crumble like the sand all around him and he needs to end up on the right side so his men don't bear the fallout of his actions.
He hears rather than sees Espera, Patrick, and Lovell lower the battle streamers and turn down the MSR, crisis averted and open wounds on the road to healing. He yearns to follow, to tell them thank you, to admit he's human and needs to know someone's on his side every now and again.
Instead he waits until they're gone before raising his eyes to meet Mike's. They tell him without words that he's not alone.
V. The Iceman Cometh
Nate senses the Iceman tweaking out long before he sees it for himself. He saw the boy; he understands what's going on in Brad's mind. Every time he hears a scream on the comms, every time a bullet rips by just a little too close, he waits for a KIA to come over the radio and what's left of his sanity to slip away like one of 2nd platoon's lives.
Except he's been lucky (too lucky) and no one's been hit let alone shipped home shrouded in black plastic. Maybe he doesn't understand what's going on Brad's mind, but he wants to.
He needs Brad too much to lose him.
He hears the pounding of the hammer on the defenseless humvee before he's even thought about filling his grave, and it makes him nervous when he catches the look in Espera and Patrick's eyes. Brad is taller than him and broader than him and older than him. He's been a recon marine longer than Nate's contemplated joining the service, and he's seen more and done more than Nate could hope to experience. He needs the Iceman to pick up the slack; he needs Brad to hold them together.
He wishes he could be the one to do it but he knows too well that it can't be him. He can't be his men's friend if he wants to bring them home.
He pulls Person aside before they go Oscar Mike and tries to phrase his words in the most simplistic way possible, wade through the constant stream of sarcasm that pours from Person's mouth and cut to the heart of the matter. "Ray," he says. "You're the driver in my lead vehicle. Anything that happens to your team, the rest of us feel it too."
Person is silent but Nate knows he understands where the conversation is headed. Person lives and breathes Brad Colbert, and he can tell by the sharp set of his mouth that Person is just as freaked out by the Iceman's meltdown. "I don't care what you have to do, Ray," he continues. "But you need to make it right for Two-One."
Ray responds with a simple "Yes, sir," before treading back to humvee one.
They assault another town and hold another stretch of road and the humvees ride smoothly down a length of MSR. The windows are open and Nate can hear the music flowing through his, Brad's voice loudest of all.
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