Austin pulled the clothes out of the drier and carried the basket into their bedroom. His leave was coming to an end and he had to report to base by midnight the following day. Austin had a full day's drive to get to base. He and Adam had learned long ago to use their last day together as a quiet day. A day that Austin could pack without rushing.
As he dumped the basket of clean clothes onto the bed, Austin gave Adam a small, quick smile. "This is the last load. I'll be ready to leave in the morning."
"You wanna tell me what's bugging you first?"
"I'm leaving, I always get a little down," Austin said as he started to fold his clothes. The tension grew faster than his pile of clothes. When he could stand the silence no longer, Austin turned his head to look at Adam.
Adam looked so calm, so composed, as he stood leaning against the dresser. Austin thought again how much he loved this man. It wasn't the physical appearance that made him love Adam so much; it was just the power of his presence. How he could appear so calm, even when Austin knew that Adam was hurting as much as he was. But as Austin looked at Adam, Adam's calm look became one of expectancy as he raised both eyebrows.
At that look, Austin chuckled. "You should have joined the Army. Military Intelligence would have loved you."
"Too many rules," Adam said. "Now, you done messing around?"
Austin knew that Adam wouldn't stop, not until he knew what was bothering his partner. It was just one of the things Austin loved and hated about their kind of relationship. "I got my re-enlistment papers."
Adam nodded but didn't say anything.
Quietly, Austin continued, "I'm not sure I want to re-enlist."
"You've always said you wanted to make the military your career, that you wanted to retire after your 20 years of service. You've eleven years to retirement. That's a long time," Adam said.
"Yeah," Austin agreed. Gathering up his strength, he quit playing with the clothes, turned and looked at Adam. "But I'm not sure whether being over there is affecting my decision."
"Does it matter why?" Adam asked. "This is your decision to make; I can't make it for you."
"Can I pull the authority card on you?" Austin half teased. "I told you I worked better as a team member, not the leader." Austin regretted his words when Adam frowned. "Sorry, I know that's not what you signed up for. You didn't even want to top me. You signed up for a soldier. A lover who'd be gone most of the time..."
Austin's heart was pounding as if he'd run the 3 mile course in full gear. He felt like a babbling idiot; he WAS a babbling idiot. This was not how he'd planned to spend his last day home. Why did he even bring up the re-enlistment? Oh, yeah, Adam had wanted to know what was wrong. Why couldn't he hide things from Adam better.
Suddenly Austin felt himself in a crushing hug.
"I told you to stop." Adam said firmly in his ear. "That means stop. Not stop talking and then berate yourself mentally. Stop. Full measure."
Austin took a deep breath and then let it out, melting into Adam's arms. Quietly he said, "I don't know what to do. I don't want to disappoint you."
When he heard Adam laugh, he struggled to get out of his arms. A sharp swat to the back of his thigh stopped him.
"Austin. I'm worried I'm going to disappoint YOU," Adam said. "I wasn't laughing at you; I was laughing at the irony of it. You don't want to disappoint me, and I don't want to disappoint you, so we are tip-toeing with each other. Let's get you packed up, no matter what WE decide, you still have to leave in the morning to report in. Then we'll sit down and talk this out."
The men finished packing, both lost in their own thoughts. They were finished way too soon according to Austin's thoughts. He still didn't know what to do and his mind had continued its own rant. Too fast for him to really understand what he was even thinking.
"Let's talk in the living room; the couch is more comfortable than the kitchen chairs," Adam said when the army green duffel bag was packed.
Austin felt like he was walking toward a firing squad as he walked to the couch. Keeping his muscles tense, Austin slowly sat down. "Adam, I don't know..."
"Austin," Adam said at the same time. He took Austin's hand and looked at him. "You've told me you wanted to be a team, but with me as the leader. Let me lead this conversation."
Austin sighed out of relief and nodded.
"Ok. If you do re-enlist, nothing changes so let's talk about what happens if you don't. So, the first thing is what would you do? I don't see you as a stay at home husband, do you?" Adam asked.
"Money's not an issue, or at least not right away, I've saved a lot of my paycheck. I've not spent anything, especially in the last year," Austin reassured Adam.
"Austin, it's not the money. We can afford you staying home. But I can't see you happy with nothing to do."
Austin wanted to pace the room, he wanted to move, he wanted to do anything, but admit to Adam he had no civilian skills. "I was in infantry! I have no job skills! There's not a lot of job openings for an expert rifleman."
"No there's not. There's also not a lot of jobs for drama queens," Adam said. When Austin opened his mouth to complain about the 'drama queen' comment, Adam continued on, "But there are a lot of opportunities for you. A lot of people give first priority to veterans. And there's the GI Bill, if you wanted to go back to school."
"I wouldn't know what to study! That's why I went into infantry!" Austin said.
"And if you didn't join back up, you could take some time and maybe find something you would like to do. We don't have to decide everything right this minute. I just want you to think about options."
"It's hard to think about what I'll do if I get out. I have to take things one step at a time, and the first is whether I re-enlist or not. Can't you just tell me what to do?" Austin asked again.
"I can't, Austin. I can't make that decision for you. All I can do is help you make the best decision for yourself. Would I like for you to be home everyday? Hell, yes! Would it be an adjustment for us? Again, yes. Will I support you in whatever you do decide? Yes. If I believed I could make this decision for you, I would."
Austin knew that he was trying to take the coward's way out; wanting to force Adam into making a decision that scared Austin himself. And that was the root of his problem. He couldn't decide if he was quitting because he was a coward. Did his experience in Afghanistan scare him so much? Or did he just want to take the next step in his life.
As if Adam had read his thoughts, Adam said, "Whatever you decide, Austin. I am going to make the decision that you talk to someone. A lot of guys coming home need that, and that's one thing I can't help you with."
Austin nodded his agreement. He knew a lot of returning soldiers went to therapy, it was becoming more commonplace for the men.
"Austin," Adam again pulled Austin from his musings. "I won't be disappointed in you, no matter what you decide. I'd be as proud to have you as my partner whether you're a soldier or a civilian."
Adam's simply stated pride in him, brought a sense of calm to Austin. Enough that his sense of humor broke through. "If I became a civilian your right hand might get lonely."
Laughing Adam said, "Oh, I think I could live with that."
Suddenly serious again, Austin looked at Adam, silently begging him to understand. "I can't make the decision right this minute."
"I know. But I hope you've gotten the reassurance you need to make it. Austin, I love you, whether you're a soldier or Walmart greeter," Adam said.
Austin nodded as a lump of emotion was stuck in his throat.
"Come on," Adam said as he pulled Austin to his feet. "Let's fix dinner and spend our night making my right hand jealous."
The sun was setting as Austin pulled on base. As he drove to the barracks, the camp, which had always felt like home, now seemed foreign to him. He missed Adam and Joey already and it'd been less than 8 hours since he'd seen Adam. Pulling up to the barracks, Austin grabbed his duffel bag and went in.
His rank afforded him housing allowance, but Austin didn't see the need to rent an apartment. A waste of time driving back and forth to base, and at his rank he was given his own room in a barrack. Unpacking should have been routine, but as Austin hung up his uniform in the minuscule closet, he thought how lonely his clothes looked without Adam's hanging next to them.
That night the small bed felt smaller than it ever had before. The loneliness seemed to engulf Austin as he reported for morning PT. Austin huffed through the 3 mile run with the 70 pound back pack and his legs were shaking with exhaustion once the physical training had ended. As he stood there panting, a group of new recruits jogged past.
God they looked young, Austin thought. And eager. Austin hadn't felt that sense of eagerness since before he'd gone to Afghanistan. The last time he'd felt excitement as a soldier had been when he'd gone to Ranger school. He missed that feeling and knew he wouldn't get it back as a soldier. As his platoon started toward the firing range, suddenly Austin wasn't undecided anymore.