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The Latent Bonding of Devil Dogs at War

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The day they find out about Patterson and Fawcett, they're Oscar Mike and Brad's stuck up front in the Humvee with Ray and his giant fucking mouth.

"That's some fucked up shit, homes," Ray says. He's been going uninterrupted for the better part of fifteen minutes and Brad's beginning to lose his patience. "I mean, Team Leader and Company Commander—talk about being exploited by your superiors. But that's what you get with those crazy Alpha fucks, I guess, that and a general lack of common fucking sense. Are you getting this, Reporter?" He looks over his shoulder for a second and then turns back to the road. "That would be like Brad and Encino Man getting it on—fucked up—and I don't really—"

"Wait," Rolling Stone says, cutting off Ray's rant. He's got his pen and paper out, but if he publishes even a quarter of what Ray says, Brad'll be surprised; Ray's full of shit more often than he isn't, and the reporter hasn't yet proven himself to be a complete idiot yet. "I thought soul bonds were socially accepted in the military?"

"Still fuckin' gay," Trombley says, his voice flat as he looks out the window, and Brad doesn't know how much Walt can hear from the turret, but it must be enough because he knocks the side of his boot against Trombley's elbow.

"Yeah, it is pretty fucking gay," Ray agrees, "but it's not that. It's like—alright, I'm gonna make a bit of a leap here, but bear with me—MK-Ultra."

Brad barely suppresses the urge to roll his eyes and instead says, "I'm not surprised that a Whiskey Tango, social reject deviant such as yourself knows all about NAMBLA, but do you even know what the hell MK-Ultra is?" Every once in a while he catches Ray in his bullshit and that shuts him up for a few minutes; Brad figures it's worth a shot.

"Fuck yeah, I do," Ray says. "Government mind control. The CIA would dope some dudes up in order to control their minds and shit."

"If that actually worked," Brad tells him, "I'd be shoving that Ripped Fuel down your throat personally. Left at this next road."

"I'm touched," Ray says offhandedly, but his left turn is sharp and directly over a pothole, and Brad understands that he means it as a fuck you.

"Okay," Rolling Stone says, "but what does all that have to do with Patterson and Fawcett?"

"Why are we even talking about this?" Trombley asks. "I just want to get to shoot somebody."

"All in good time, my little psycho," Ray says. "Look, all I'm saying is, my grandparents were married fifty-two years—fifty-two years—before they magically bonded with each other. And they weren't even fucking at the time; he was in the kitchen making eggs, she was at the table reading the paper, and boom—bonded. What kind of fucking sense does that make? No way they actually bonded, homes. If it doesn’t happen right away, it doesn’t happen at all. Like, Patterson and Fawcett—they knew each other for ages, and now they just suddenly bond, in this shithole? If that's not government mind control—"

“Latent bonding is actually much more common than people realize,” Rolling Stone says, like he watched a documentary on it or something. “I mean, with most bonds, it happens right when you meet, but even if it happens years later when the frequencies of the souls match up, both parties involved know that there's at least the potential for a future bond. Your grandparents probably did."

"Yeah, potential, my left nut," Ray says under his breath. “That shit never goes anywhere. It’s called being fucking deluded.

Rolling Stone, ever hopeful, says to Ray, "It could’ve been worse; some people never bond at all.”

“You should be so lucky,” Brad says, and he watches Ray tighten his grip on the steering wheel before looking back out the window. “Nothing worse than getting tied to one person and having no say in who you have to fuck for the rest of your life.”

“Oh, yeah, Reporter,” Ray says, as if this is only now occurring to him, “Brad only likes prostitutes. Write that down.”

“Prostitutes?” Rolling Stone asks. “You mean you don’t want to find the one person who—”

“No,” Brad says.

“But being bonded to someone means that your soul actually would want it, more than anything,” he tries again. “You would want—”

“No.”

“I thought I bonded to someone once,” Ray says, grabbing the Reporter’s attention. Brad can’t even imagine that—doesn’t want to imagine that—Ray belonging to someone other than himself. “Yeah, dude, I was in middle school and the girl I liked hated my guts, and I got these really fucking bad headaches out of nowhere. I was dizzy all the time and shit. Turns out I’m just allergic to the tyramine found in fucking bleu cheese and bananas. It’s bullshit; it ruined my fucking childhood.”

“And yet you lived to tell the tale,” Brad says. He wonders if it’s true, the part about the tyramine.

“No fucking way I was dying a third grade virgin, homes. You know me better than that.”

"You think Patterson and Fawcett are fucking?" Trombley asks.

"It's none of our business what they do," Brad says, eyes on the road ahead of them. He hates everything about soul bonds and likes talking about them even less, but then again, he doesn't exactly have the best track record with them.

"Dude, Trombley, they definitely are," Ray says. "Bonded sex is like the most intense sex you can have, you know, because it's not just physical or whatever, it's fucking mental and spiritual and shit, too, and like, your brain's shorting out while your balls just—"

"Wait, I thought you said you weren’t bonded," Rolling Stone says.

"I’m not, homes," Ray says. "The Corps owns my ass; I don't even have the time to go find some quality pussy for a night, let alone for a lifetime."

"That's because no quality pussy is interested in your disease-ridden hick ass," Brad says. "Now can we please stop talking about how you can't get laid for five fucking minutes?"

Ray smiles a little and then throws back to the reporter, "Brad gets jealous when I talk about other women."

"Ray," Brad snaps, and everyone in the Humvee shuts up. Ray purposefully drives over another pothole and Brad clenches his jaw.

The thing about soul bonds is that they're no different from anything he felt when he was with Tricia, but because his feelings weren't backed up by some archaic biological principle, his relationship ended up meaning jack shit to anyone who cared enough to give their opinion; meanwhile, Tricia leaving him for his best friend while he was on tour in Afghanistan ended up being lauded and legitimized because the two of them bonded after ten years of friendship and some pseudo-science declared that they were meant to be together. It's all just some premium grade-A bullshit peddled by left-wing liberal dicksucks who want to hold the hands of the American populace and console them with the fact that they're not alone, regardless of their status as weak-willed, semi-socialist dumbfucks, because their other half is out there somewhere, just waiting to be found.

And he must say that last bit out loud, or maybe that's just how well Ray knows him, because then Ray says, "Brad, she ain't shit."

"Who ain't shit?" Trombley asks.

"Your psycho-rabid mom," Ray responds.

Trombley rolls his eyes and slouches further against the window, and the reporter wisely says nothing. Up in the turret, Walt cusses to himself and announces that the MK-19 is fucking jammed, and Brad yells back that he should un-fucking-jam it.

Ray drives smoothly for the next hour, talks nonstop about his sleep deprivation and his newest MRE dessert creation ideas, and while that doesn’t completely distract Brad, it does keep his mind off of some of the less pleasant shit, and so there’s that.

 

When they set up camp for the night, they’re in the middle of nowhere and on twenty-five percent watch. The stars are just beginning to show; if Brad were a pussy civilian, he’d notice how many more stars are visible in Iraq than back home, but as it is, Brad doesn’t even look up.

“So, if Saddam doesn’t have any WMDs…” Trombley starts. Somehow, their entire Humvee begged off watch duty and now they’re just hanging around, making the best of their boredom and downtime. Rolling Stone’s across the way, talking to Poke, and Brad can tell he’s fascinated, can hear him asking educated questions about the white man’s role in society.

“Oh, for sure he does,” Ray interrupts. He’s lying on the Humvee’s hood, his flak jacket off and the suspenders of his MOPP suit down. His shirt’s riding up, showing his hip, and he’s got an arm thrown over his eyes. Brad doesn’t like that, the way Ray’s draped over the Humvee like that. It makes him feel unsettled. “One hundred percent. Ten out of ten. Eleven out of ten. What the fuck kind of question is that?”

“I dunno,” Walt says. “I mean, even we’re now saying he doesn’t have anything…”

“It doesn’t fucking matter,” Brad says, which seems to catch them off guard as much as it does him; he doesn’t usually participate in these kinds of conversations. “We’re Marines; we do what we’re told. For example: Ray, get the fuck off my Humvee.”

“Motherfucker,” Ray says, but he still rolls off the hood and collapses in the dirt next to Walt.

“Walt, how bad’s the jamming?” Brad asks.

“Getting worse,” Walt says, “but I’m making do.”

Brad nods, and a few minutes later when he gets up, Ray asks, “Shittin’ time?”

“No,” Brad says, shaking his head. “Going to see the LT about some lube.”

“Sergeant Colbert!” Ray gasps. “That isn’t proper!”

“Shut up you dumb hick,” Walt laughs. “I want that lube!”

Brad’s gone before Ray even opens his mouth to respond, cutting his way across their site and crossing between parked Humvees and empty graves as he heads to where the LT should be. There’s dirt caked under his fingernails and sand in his ass, and Brad wonders how long it’s been since he’s has a proper shower, how much longer it’ll be until he has one again. That’s about it, the extent of what he misses besides his bike and the ocean. Brad idly wonders what that says about him, and then decides that thinking that way is an affront to his warrior spirit.

When Brad gets there, the LT’s Humvee is empty, and although he can hear Q-Tip laughing a few vehicles away, there’s no sign of Fick. Rudy and Pappy are right there, though, and so he asks them.

“You seen the LT?”

“Yeah,” Pappy says, tilting his head back so Rudy can shave under his chin. “He’s with Encino Man.”

“Shit,” Brad cusses under his breath, and immediately begins weighing his desire to speak with the LT against his extreme hatred for all things pertaining to Schwetje.

“Yeah, I know,” Pappy says, a small smile on his face like he understands. And he does, Brad supposes.

“Anything we can help you with, brother?” Rudy asks.

“No, thanks though,” Brad says.

“Any time, my man,” Rudy calls after him as he takes off, back the other way. “Always here to help out.”

Brad’s stomach starts growling as he walks back past his empty Humvee, ready for his piece of shit MRE of the day. Apparently everyone else has the same thought, too, because as he’s passing Poke’s victor, he hears Garza saying, “I’ll trade you for it, a peanut butter and a milkshake.”

Fuck no,” Ray says, because of course it’s Ray; Ray always gets the good shit. “For a jalapeno and cheese? That deserves at least a pound cake and a blowjob.”

“The white man’s extortion,” Poke tells them. “You’re better off, Gabe. Last time my people accepted something from the white man—”

“Yeah, yeah, typhoid blankets, I know,” Ray says.

And Brad thinks—maybe he wouldn’t get anywhere near Ray’s invasion-dirty, cousin-fucking cock, but he’d do a lot for some goddamn jalapeno and cheese. He almost stops to say something for a second, too, but ultimately getting Walt’s MK-19 working smoothly takes precedence and he keeps on walking, his boots softly hitting the dirt as he goes.

The LT’s by himself when Brad finds him, his Kevlar in his hand as he runs his fingers through the back of his hair. There’s a streak of bright white skin along his chin and his jaw where his chinstrap was, and it stands out in stark contrast to the rest of his dirty face. He looks so fucking young that Brad wonders what the hell he’s doing here, only to feel stupid when he remembers that Fick’s older than Ray.

“Sir,” Brad says, grabbing the LT’s attention.

“Brad,” Fick says, strapping his Kevlar back on. “How is everything?”

“We’re hanging in there, sir,” Brad says. “Could really use some more lube for the MK-19, though.”

The corners of Fick’s mouth tighten for a second before he says, “If you’ve finished that other container, you’ll have to make do with the local stuff you’ve got.”

“With all due respect, sir,” Brad presses, “that stuff wouldn’t lubricate the loosest of whores, and going to war with the main gun on your point vehicle inoperable seems less than ideal.”

“Noted,” the LT says. “I’ll see what I can do.” And then he changes the subject, asks, “How’s the morale in your team?”

“Sir?” Brad asks. Morale hasn’t changed much since the start; Iraq still fucking sucks.

“The bonding in Alpha,” Fick explains. “It’s been a source of tension in other platoons. Is this something you’ve noticed?”

“Tension?” Brad deadpans. “Isn’t it supposed to be a joyous occasion?”

Fick cracks a small smile and then says, “Unfortunately, Recon Marines live to defy expectation.”

And Brad gets that, gets that people are stressed during wartime and that anything can upset the status quo. Yeah, they’re Recon Marines, but some of them are still pussy bitches. And so he says, “Morale is stable, sir, except for those few horrible minutes that we had to listen to Person sing country.”

“I can only imagine,” Fick says. And then, almost as if he’s unsure as to how the question will be received, he asks, “Are you bonded, Brad?”

“No, sir,” Brad says, and he tries not to think of Tricia. “You?”

“No,” Fick says, and then, looking out at the darkness in front of them, he adds, “But I have potential with someone back home. Maybe if I’m lucky.”

Brad doesn’t correct him, doesn’t tell him that’ll only happen if he’s unlucky, but he thinks it and that’s what counts.

By the time Brad makes it back to his grave, he’s body weary and everyone not on watch is asleep. He sits down in the dirt and opens up his MRE and—

“Motherfucking peanut butter bullshit,” he whispers to himself, and when he sees movement out of the corner of his eye, he turns to see Ray sitting up in the next grave over.

“Oh hey, homes,” Ray attempts to whisper back at him, but his voice cuts loudly through the air anyways. “Trade you?”

“Yeah,” Brad says, tossing his peanut butter over. “Fuck, I’ll take anything at this point.”

Another MRE comes flying back, hitting him square in the chest. He pulls back, reads the label: jalapeno and cheese.

“You giant Hebrew motherfucker,” Ray says, peanut butter already making his words sound thick. “You always get the good ones.”

And for a second, Brad almost wants to thank Ray, because he recognizes what Ray is trying to do, how Ray is going out of his way to shake Brad out of his funk. He wonders where Ray got that jalapeno and cheese, what he had to trade for it or if he honestly got it by chance. Brad’s the Iceman to anyone who’ll ask, but that doesn’t mean shit to Ray, and Brad wonders when that happened.

“Homes, quit being so gay,” Ray says, even though Brad knows for a fact he didn’t say any of that out loud.

“Ray,” Brad says. “Shut up.”

Ray laughs at that as he lies back, and although Brad doesn’t laugh, he smiles as he takes a bite of his MRE.

“I’ll take first watch,” he offers.

“We’re on quarter watch, you freak,” Ray says. “Get some sleep.”

“Someone’s gotta watch your six,” Brad says, shaking his head.

“Yeah,” Ray agrees, “and that someone is fucking Christeson and Shady B and shit.”

“You’re gonna trust Baptista to make sure you don’t get killed?” Brad asks. He likes this, bantering with Ray like this. When Ray doesn’t have an audience, talking to him helps Brad relax, helps loosen the knot in his chest and the tension in his shoulders. “Baptista barely even speaks English.”

“He about speaks it as well as Q-Tip does,” Ray jokes, and Brad looks over, can just barely make out Ray’s shape in his grave.

“Says the fucking uneducated trailer dweller,” Brad shoots back.

“And here I thought we were being civil.”

Brad doesn’t say anything for a second, waiting for a comeback to formulate in his mind, but when nothing comes, he just says, “Get some fucking sleep, Ray.”

“I forgot that you were above please and thank you,” Ray says, but he shifts around and shuts his eyes anyways.

“The fuck do I have to thank your Whiskey Tango ass for?” Brad asks.

“Oh, you know,” Ray says. “Just about everything, homes.”

He laughs a little under his breath and Brad purposefully doesn’t respond. They’re only at quarter watch, that’s true, and Brad would trust both Christeson and Baptista with his life, but it still takes him a while to fall asleep, his eyes flicking between the horizon and the curve of Ray’s shoulder as he sleeps.

 

The LT wakes Brad up in the middle of the night.

“Get your team up,” he says. “We’re Oscar Mike in ten.”

“Alright,” Brad says, and he sits up immediately, gets to his feet. Ray’s already up, jerking one out quietly in his grave, and so Brad leaves him to it, just says, “Ten minutes, Person,” and gets a sarcastically grunted, “Oh yeah, Brad, harder,” in response.

“You’re a sick fuck,” Brad calls back, and then he walks away, heads to the Humvees for a meeting on what’s going on. He knows that Ray was just fucking with him, trying to get a rise out of him, but mostly Brad just feels like he has laughter trapped in his chest. It’s a weird feeling that he can’t quite explain.

“Excitement, huh?” Captain America practically yells when Brad walks by, mistaking the source of his smile. “A mission!” He pumps his fists and gives Brad the craziest fucking eyes Brad has ever seen.

“Yes, sir,” Brad says. He doesn’t understand how someone as moronic as Captain America could have made it so far in the Corps. Maybe he wasn’t always like this. “Looking forward to it.”

“Ooh-rah!” Captain America says, and his smile is stretched across his face. Brad just keeps walking.

When gets to the LT’s vehicle, Pappy’s already there, and Poke, too. So is the LT, and he’s got a map spread out in the dirt. Brad thinks something must’ve just happened, because everything’s real tense when he walks up, and the LT looks up at him like maybe he’s in a little bit over his head. Brad doesn’t mind helping, when he can; he likes the LT more than he likes most people.

“Right,” Fick says, and he dives into the mission details without much fanfare. “Godfather wants us relocated farther north, to a village forty klicks south of Al Hayy. That means that tonight, we are here,” he points to a spot on the map, “and by ten thirty, we need to be here,” he points to a second point. “I am assured that our new position will be of strategic importance in the following days. Questions?”

“Can we expect any enemy resistance?” Brad asks.

“None,” the LT says. “But still—be vigilant and keep open comms.”

“Sir, are we to assume that we’ll be entering the city in the future?” Pappy asks, and Fick shakes his head.

“Assumptions will do us no good at this point,” he says. “No telling what will happen between one day and the next.” And Brad agrees with that, especially considering the leadership that they have—the LT himself aside—but he doesn’t voice that opinion aloud. “Gentlemen, this should be an easy move for us. Let’s just focus on that.”

“Solid copy,” Brad says, and Poke rolls his eyes at him.

When they’re walking back to their own Humvees, Poke bumps their shoulders together and says, “Enemy resistance. Bet you were hoping for it. You white boys are all trigger-happy motherfuckers."

"I'm not going to deny it," Brad says. "They send us to this godforsaken piece of shit country and then refuse to give us an actual mission. We're driving around like bitches in tin-plated Humvees, doing absolutely nothing."

"Dog, you are one ice cold son of a bitch,” Poke says, a look of disbelief on his face. He's probably the only one of them that couldn't care less either way whether or not they see any action. Poke's his own breed.

“So they say,” Brad responds.

“Yeah, yeah,” Poke says, and he climbs into his Humvee. “See you on the other side.”

Brad keeps walking, another dozen or so paces towards his own vehicle, when Ray falls into step with him. Ray looks tired—he always looks tired—but his eyes are alert and it’s not like Brad could do anything, anyways, so he doesn’t mention it.

“Why the fuck aren’t you behind the wheel?” Brad asks. They’re Oscar fucking Mike; Ray should be behind the goddamn wheel.

“I’m fucking courting you, homes,” Ray says, amusement written all over his face. “Trying to trick your soul into bonding with me so you’ll finally let me touch your giant Hebrew cock one day. Can I carry your books for you, Sergeant? Will you be the Patterson to my Fawcett?”

Brad just shakes his head in disbelief.

“I don’t even want to know,” Brad says, and then Ray’s opening up the passenger side door to the Humvee before Brad can get to it himself. Ray bows in one sweeping gesture and Brad just rolls his eyes before climbing in. Ray blows him a kiss and then jogs around the front of the vehicle to the driver’s side.

“Sergeant,” Trombley says, “is Corporal Person a faggot?”

“Now, now, James,” Ray responds in a falsetto voice, setting himself up in his seat. “Mind your manners or you’ll never make any friends.”

There’s a beat of silence, and then Trombley says, “I’ve got friends.”

Walt laughs at that, just loudly enough that they can hear him from where he is up in the turret, and that makes them all laugh, too. And then it’s back to work, driving through the dark to their next rally point.

 

“Fuh-king shit, homes,” Ray says. They’ve been driving for less than fifteen minutes, and already Brad can tell that Ray’s bored, just like he can always tell what Ray’s feeling, because Ray can’t keep his shit to himself.

“Ray,” Brad says. It’s supposed to be a warning, but doesn’t much come out like one. Trombley’s trying to sleep, his head against the window, and although Brad can tell he’s still awake, he doesn’t want to be louder than necessary.

“Don’t you fucking Ray me, homes,” Ray says. “Every time I try to fucking rub one out, one of you perverted Marine retards is always watching me. What kind of kinky bullshit is that? Now, I like voyeurism as much as the next guy, but I was led to believe that there was some sort of combat jack protocol in effect, here. You know, like, thou shall not covet thy neighbor’s giant cock.”

“You don’t have a giant cock, you sorry excuse for a post-pubescent, Whiskey Tango man-child,” Brad says.

“There you go,” Ray responds, taking both his hands off the wheel and throwing them in the air for one dangerous moment. “Abusing your power and looking at my cock like you’re some kinda Patterson praying on your grunts.”

“Wait,” Rolling Stone pipes up from in the back. His voice is thick and sleepy. “You’re not going to even defend the size of your—you know?”

“What’s to defend?” Trombley asks slowly. “We all know his dick is like a roll of pennies.”

“Someone’s been looking. You finally coming out to us, young Trombley?” Ray asks.

“I’m not a faggot,” Trombley says. It’s not an argument, just a statement of fact. “You just don’t know how to keep your fucking clothes on.”

Brad nods from the front seat and agrees, “It’s a side effect of Person’s own brand of corn-fed, sister-fucking, special snowflake mental retardation.”

“You always say the nicest things, Brad,” Ray says. He addresses the rest of the victor next, says, “I’m a fucking retard, but Brad? Hey, Reporter—Brad once actually tried to buy a tank to keep on his front lawn, did he tell you that? A fucking British tank, too, and he’s sitting there saying I’m the retard.”

Rolling Stone laughs a little in disbelief and asks, “Is that true?”

“Shit yeah, it’s true,” Ray says. “He arranged the loan and everything, but then he pussied out,” and Brad feels the need to speak up.

“It was a surplus,” he explains, his eyes still focused forward on the road. “But I couldn’t get it because parking a tank in my own goddamn driveway is illegal.”

“They have laws for that?” the reporter asks.

“The Communist Republic of California has pussy bullshit laws for everything,” Brad explains. “It’s a fucking disgrace.”

“Yeah, I’ll bet,” Ray says sarcastically, only to get cut off by Trombley.

“I’d buy a SAW, if I had the money,” he says, and he runs his fingers gently over the top of his weapon. “You don’t have to park that anywhere.”

“Trombley,” Brad says, and then he doesn’t know what else to say, so he just shakes his head.

“Seriously,” Ray agrees. “I was joking before, but where did the Corps even find this guy?”

“Michigan,” Trombley says, and Brad can’t even be bothered to respond.

“I wouldn’t buy a MK-19, even if I could,” Walt yells down to them. “Laura would kill me.”

“Laura?” Rolling Stone asks.

“His wife,” Ray answers, before anyone else gets the chance to. He likes to be the one who gets to talk. “They’ve been bonded since they were—I shit you not—six years old.”

“Married five years,” Walt shouts. “Since I was eighteen.”

“It’s all star-crossed lovers, now that he’s in the Corps,” Brad says. “She sends him mail sprayed in her perfume, and he sits there smelling them like they’re his one lifeline out of here.”

“Wait,” Trombley says, and then ignoring everyone in the Humvee, he yells up the turret, “Would she kill you with the MK-19?”

“Nah,” Walt yells back. “But she’d probably avoid me for a few days, and it isn’t worth the trouble.”

“Another reason not to bond,” Brad mutters under his breath. He hunches over and looks out at the skyline through his scope. “Fucking undignified.”

“I dunno, homes,” Ray says. “I wouldn’t mind.”

“For the sex?” Rolling Stone asks, looking for clarification, maybe.

“No, for the intensely close relationship full of mutual trust and emotional support,” Ray says. “Fuck yes, for the sex. Bonded sex, homes!”

“Hey,” Trombley says, “isn’t it weird that Walt’s only had sex with one person?” He huffs out a bit of a laugh that’s mostly just air as he smiles, and doesn’t seem to mind it that no one else laughs with him. Another reason why bonding is bullshit: they’d all be ragging on Walt if his one person wasn’t the one person supposedly made for him.

“Man, I don’t want nobody else,” Walt calls out, and Ray nods serenely.

“She’s got the perfect pussy for Walt’s little soldier,” he says.

“Shut it, Ray,” Walt shouts back, but he’s smiling a little, probably thinking of his wife. Brad just feels sorry for him, all fucking wrapped up in someone else like that.

“Hey, that’s not me, homes!” Ray says. “That’s biology saying that!”

“Nah,” Trombley says. “You just like thinking of pussy.”

Rolling Stone obviously agrees, as he says, “Maybe you should write for Hustler. Do a bit of Beaver Hunt.”

“Fucking A, I should!” Ray says, banging the heel of one hand on the steering wheel for emphasis. “I’d turn Beaver Hunt into some fine-ass literature, with my commentary. I’m telling you, dude, I would win—fucking—so many awards and shit, even my grandma would be proud, and I’m talking prouder than she was when she put my picture up on the Wal-Mart Wall of—”

“Let’s play the quiet game,” Brad interrupts, keeping his voice forcibly light, in the hopes that it shows just how annoyed he is. All Ray does is talk about pussy, and it grates on Brad’s nerves. He’s had enough. “Ray, you’re probably familiar with that one from childhood.”

Ray just slumps over the steering wheel a bit and doesn’t respond, and so Brad counts that one as a win.

 

They have some downtime at the rally point, the entire Company waiting for word from Godfather on when to move out, which they are assured will be soon. Brad's talked with the LT, checked and re-checked all the gear they're lugging in the back of their Humvee, and put in a shift of watch duty; nothing's happened, no word so far on when they're Oscar Mike.

Ray's a dozen paces or so away, eating some concoction made of grape beverage base and pound cake, and he’s singing whatever American songs he can somehow relate back to war, American glory, or the shithole that they're in. Lilley's with him, and Chaffin, but they're not any better, or any quieter.

"Hey, hey," Ray says, spreading his hand out on the Humvee he's standing next to. He starts singing, "She was a fast machine, she kept her motor clean, she was the best damn woman that I—"

"American, brah," Lilley says.

"The fuck you talking about?" Ray asks. "That shit is American. AC/DC, homes!"

"Nah, they're not," Lilley stresses. "They're—"

Chaffin speaks over him, says, "Yeah, homes, they're—"

"—Australian," Lilley finishes.

"Australian?" Chaffin asks. "What the fuck."

"Well," Ray says, seemingly at a loss for words. "I choose not to fucking believe that."

Brad rolls his eyes to himself; he fails to see how this is interesting enough to even become a topic of conversation, let alone the point of contention that it's quickly becoming.

Walt kicks a boot out at Brad as he's rolling up their cammie nets and says, "Maybe I shouldn't tell them that Neil Young is from Canada."

"No shit?" Brad asks.

"Winnipeg," Walt tells him, and Brad just shrugs. Go figure.

"It's all these fucking foreigners," Trombley says from just inside the Humvee, eating a handful of Skittles. And then he jokes, "That's why I only listen to the Star Spangled Banner."

Walt breaks out into surprised laughter; it's one of the rare occasions that Trombley's actually been funny, and so Brad smiles, lets him know that the joke was amusing. The way Trombley looks at that—proud, young—makes it hard for Brad to fault him for all the disturbing comments that he makes. He's fucked in the head, but Brad thinks a lot of it is him trying to fit in. Some of it, at least.

"Can one of you fill up our water before we head out?" Brad asks. "I don't know how long we'll be driving for, and it's hot as fuck out."

"Yeah, I got it," Trombley says, and he jumps out of the open Humvee door. He grabs their jug from the back and then, shading his eyes against the sun, says, "Don't let Person eat the rest of my Skittles."

Trombley walks away, leaving Walt and Brad alone for a few minutes. It's alright; Walt can talk or he can not talk, it doesn't faze him, and so Brad chooses not to talk.

He gets lost in the rhythm of what he's doing, checking the tightness of their Humvee straps and debating if he has enough time to clean his weapon, when Walt cusses softly under his breath.

"Encino Man," he says. "Three o'clock and approaching fast."

"Damn it," Brad says, annoyed. "Casey Kasem?"

"Yeah. They're always together."

Brad grits his teeth and tries to look real busy checking the straps on the Humvee, hoping maybe they won't bother him. He doesn't have it in him to grin and bear it, like this incompetent fucking moron isn't the worst thing about Bravo Company. Even Captain America knows his shit, to an extent. Even Captain America knows fucking danger close.

"Brad," Encino Man says from somewhere behind him, and Brad takes a second to control the disdain written all over his face before turning around. He's in no rush to meet on Schwetje's schedule.

"Sir," he says, nodding at Encino Man. And then, "Gunnery Sergeant." Another nod.

"Brad," Schwetje says again, "we know that you have a certain responsibility as the point vehicle, and being in that situation can be quite stressful, but we just wanted to say that... you're doing a good job, and it's not going unnoticed."

"Keep up the good work," Casey Kasem adds.

"Thank you, sir," Brad says. He can see Ray just behind them, a look of barely contained laughter on his face. Rolling Stone's with him, his notebook out.

Encino Man and Casey Kasem stand around for a minute longer, perhaps expecting Brad to say something more, or debating saying something else themselves. Brad doesn't say anything, though, just stares expectantly at them, and finally they leave, the two of them glued at the hip as they swagger away like some sort of second-rate, homoerotic military pornography.

"Oh my god," Ray says once they're out of earshot, falling all over himself and throwing one arm around the reporter to keep himself upright. "That was embarrassing."

"From the outside looking in, maybe," Brad says. "From where I was standing, it was just painful."

"What was that even about?" Rolling Stone asks, and Brad just rolls his eyes, shakes his head.

"Trying to raise morale," Brad guesses. He's not sure, but he doesn't know what else could have been the point. "It's not working, in his case."

"Yeah, no shit it's not working," Ray says. "We all know he's a giant fucking retard, and he knows we all like the LT better. A gold star's not going to change that. Plus, there was that whole thing with Doc Bryan, and so I think he's trying to save face or some shit, like a fucking idiot."

"Should've just let it lie," Walt says. Brad just hums noncommittally, looks back at his cleaning kit and then to his weapon. He wants to clean it, probably should, but they might be moving out in five minutes, and Brad doesn’t want to get stuck in that predicament.

"What whole thing with Doc Bryan?" Rolling Stone asks.

"Fuck it," Brad says under his breath, and he grabs the kit, settles down and starts taking out what he needs, his cleaning picks and barrel brush. This is my rifle, he thinks. There are many like it, but this one is mine.

"Shit, homes, you haven't heard?” Ray's saying. “Encino Man went around and tried to clear the air regarding his own retardation, and he asked a whole bunch of people to speak freely with him, like Doc and Baptista and some other guys, and Shady B just starts talking in Spanish at him—"

"Portuguese," Brad interjects, wiping down his weapon with a dirty cloth rag.

"—or whatever, and then Doc just says, like, Sir, you're hugely fucking incompetent, and Encino Man—"

"He didn't say it like that," Walt laughs. "Are you kidding me?"

"Whatever, homes. The point is, Doc threw down the gauntlet, and Encino Man just stood there and took it. There's no saving face after that beat down."

"What," Rolling Stone says, "and he didn't get in trouble for that?"

Walt shrugs and answers, "He was asked to speak freely. And besides, I don't think Encino Man wants people knowing about it."

"Too late for that," Brad says.

"And now it's your duty," Ray declares, his hands on the reporter's shoulders, shaking him lightly, "to put it in print and let the world know."

Rolling Stone just smiles and rolls his eyes; he's learned quickly, when it comes to Ray. Brad doesn't blame him.

 

They’re in the Humvee again, a day later. They’re always in the fucking Humvee, always going nowhere, but now they finally have an actual mission—a real one, none of this roadblock shit that they’ve been doing—and it’s a suicide mission. Crossing the bridge without first sending a foot patrol for recon is one thing, but cutting through Al Hayy when even LAVs were there, taking casualties? They don’t stand much of a chance.

Brad takes some of Ray’s Ripped Fuel before they head out, although he doesn’t really know why. He chews coffee crystals when he’s tired, but he’s never been into uppers, never really needed them. Extra precaution, maybe; if Brad’s going to die, he’s not going to do it by falling the fuck asleep.

The drive is less than pleasant, shitty roads and dirt flying up everywhere, and none of them can see for shit. They all know that odds are they’ll be massacred the second they cross into the city, and everyone in their tin-plated Humvee is tense because of it. Trombley is awake and quiet, and Ray doesn’t antagonize him, for once; if Rolling Stone knows what they’re driving into, he doesn’t say it. A part of Brad wishes that Poke would’ve let him unload the reporter before they left; that would’ve made things easier than keeping him with them on fear that his absence will change their luck and adversely affect their ability to survive and complete the mission, or what the fuck ever.

“Brad,” Ray says, tilting his head left and right, his top lip pulled up and showing off his teeth as he squints through his NVGs. “Is that a guardrail on the side of the road?”

Brad can’t see what the fuck he’s talking about, and so he looks through his scope, says, “It’s the shoulder. It slopes. I know you’ve got no depth perception in those NVGs, but use some common fucking sense in your situational awareness.”

“It’s the way the fucking ambient light is slanting in,” Ray protests, as if that makes a fucking difference. “I can’t tell if the dark areas are fucking ditches or walls.”

And Brad thinks—Brad knows that Ray’s competent, wouldn’t have him in his Humvee otherwise, and so if Ray can’t see for shit, maybe they really are fucked. Then again, maybe it’s just Ray; they don’t call him a scrotum-faced, sister-fucking hick for nothing.

It happens again, just minutes later, more problems with the fucking NVGs. Brad’s already on edge because of this incredibly moronic and poorly planned mission, and the fact that Ray’s weaving and turning around a ditch in the road, slowing down as he does, isn’t helping any.

“Hey, something’s blocking the bridge,” Ray says, but he can’t tell what, and a second later, Walt backs him up, says there’s something there.

They stop the victor just shy of the blocked bridge, trying to turn around, and then Walt, watching where the Humvee is backing up, yells down to them, “It ain’t a ditch! It’s like a drainpipe that’s been drug onto the road!”

And then Brad knows. And he can tell that Ray knows, too, by the way he shuts the fuck up and listens to Brad telling him to make a three-point turn, no back-talk or anything. They’ve been channeled into a kill zone; it’s a fucking ambush, and they’re sitting ducks.

The Humvee rocks back and forth as Ray tries to turn the victor around, but they’re all packed in there so tight, no fucking comms with half the victors, and eventually he has to stop because he can’t fucking get anywhere, and even Brad can see that. Ray calls out, “Espera’s vehicle is in front of us. We’re fucking boxed in.”

They keep getting requests from Fick over the radio to turn around. Trombley and Walt call out that they’re seeing nothing, Rolling Stone’s saying nothing, and nothing is happening except for how they’re trapped. It has bad news written all over it, for Brad, although everything’s still quiet. He keeps an eye out through his scope, feeling on edge.

“There are men in the trees,” Brad says, before he even realizes what he’s seeing. He fires and then everyone fires, shots going off everywhere, muzzle flashes in the grass, and their victor still isn’t fucking moving. Half a dozen Iraqis dead, and they’re fucking sitting there.

Ray’s yelling in the comms, telling everyone to back up, and then ranting about Baptista’s apparent inability to speak fucking English. Brad doesn’t care; Brad just wants to get the fuck out of there.

He feels it more than he sees it, Ray opening the Humvee door and stepping out right into the crossfire. Brad doesn’t even have to look away from his scope to know what’s going on, and although it needs to be done, Brad wants to tell him to get back in the fucking Humvee, as if it affords them any sort of protection at all. If Ray gets hit because he’s an idiot who can’t stay put—

“Lilley!” Ray’s yelling, and Brad’s still shooting at men on the ground, on the opposite side of their victor. “What the fuck? Would you please back the fuck up?

And Brad—he’s not sure why he does it, only something in him tells him it’s urgent, and so he turns away from his weapon to look at Ray. It’s something the Iceman would never do normally, but Brad doesn’t question it, because he has to, he’s got to make sure Ray’s—

Ray’s got one hand in the air, gesturing as he yells, and Brad just watches as a bullet zips so close to Ray’s head that it splits the cloth lining on his Kevlar. Brad feels his heart rate skyrocket immediately, and he knows he should get back to what he was doing, but he can’t, because Ray almost got shot—fuck, Ray could have died—and Brad feels like his heart is climbing up out of his throat at the thought. He can’t—anyone else, maybe, but Ray?

Ray turns suddenly to look at him, standing right where he is in the middle of the crossfire, and his eyes are wide, shocked, and his mouth is open, frozen halfway through yelling at everyone to move. And it’s like everything stops—the killing, the fighting, everything—and Brad just looks at Ray as Ray looks at him, and he makes sure that Ray’s okay, and it’s almost like they’re holding a conversation, because he can tell that Ray’s scared—for himself and for everyone else, but especially for Brad—and that he’s anxious and wound up and happy. It’s not a large part, the happiness, but it’s big enough, and Brad doesn’t have the time to wonder about it because suddenly there’s a sharp pain in his upper arm.

“Fuck!” he says, and he rips his gaze away from Ray and to the slit in his jacket sleeve where a bullet just grazed him. It doesn’t hurt, not as bad as it could, but Ray’s being real fucking loud about his worry, broadcasting it all over the place like Brad’s the one standing in open fire, and that makes Brad worry, too, even though that makes no fucking sense. He doesn’t think about it, doesn’t let it concern him, because there are more pressing matters to be dealing with, like the fact that they’re in the middle of a fucking ambush and none of these retards will turn their vehicles around.

Ray climbs back into the driver’s seat, in one piece, and suddenly it’s like Brad can breathe again. Ray getting hit would be bad news for all of them because he’s their driver and they need him to get out of there, but Brad knows that’s not even the half of it, even if he doesn’t like admitting it. He looks at Ray for a second, and Ray looks at him. Brad wants to say something, which is strange, because he hates talking, and so he doesn’t say anything at all.

It’s like Brad’s living on a separate plane of existence right then, and that’s something that Rudy would say, but it doesn’t make it any less true. The comms are going wild, everyone yelling, and Brad knows he needs to listen, knows he should, but he can’t find it in himself to be able to. He’s okay, and Ray’s okay, but he keeps cataloguing the two of them and their injuries, the graze on his arm and the graze on Ray’s helmet, as he shoots at any Iraqi he sees. He’s doing his job, and he’s doing it well, but he’s not calm, not entirely focused, and he doesn’t feel at all like the Iceman. He hates that. Brad isn’t used to this, to worrying about other people like this.

 

Almost as quickly as it starts, the ambush stops. The Humvees get turned around and they’re all speeding back out of this piece of shit kill box in under ten. Brad’s heart keeps racing the entire way through, even once they’re out, and that throws him off more than anything; he tries to blame it on Ray’s goddamn Ripped Fuel, but he’s not so sure.

“Hey, Reporter,” Brad calls out over the noise from the radio, not taking his eyes off the road still ahead of them. Ray’s driving is quick and erratic, over all the potholes and random shit in the way, and for some reason it’s making Brad feel nervous, uneasy. Brad doesn't doubt Ray's proficiency as a driver; he's got no reason to feel this way, and yet he still wants to reach out, to touch Ray’s elbow and reassure him that they’re both still in one piece. “Reporter. You okay?”

“Yeah,” Rolling Stone says. He stutters through it, but Brad had expected that.

“It’s good, huh?” Trombley asks. “Fighting. You should have enlisted so you’d actually have gotten to carry a weapon, ‘cause killing’s even better than—”

“Shut the fuck up, Trombley,” Ray snaps. He’s fumbling for the radio over his shoulder with one hand, and Brad doesn’t even need to look at him to tell that Ray’s not handling any of this well. He wonders what’s got Ray acting like this, if maybe it’s the fact that he could have died, or if it’s something else. “Brad’s been hit.”

“What?” Trombley asks, slow as if he doesn’t understand. And then, “Shit, Sergeant, are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” Brad says. A minor fucking bullet wound is nothing. He thinks of Ray's face as the bullet grazed the side of his Kevlar, looks at Ray’s face now, at how his eyes flicker between Brad and the road.

Over the radio, Ray’s saying, “Hitman Two, this is Hitman Two-One. We’ve got a slight casualty and request medical assistance once outside of the kill zone. How copy?”

“Hitman Two-One, this is Hitman Two Actual,” the LT’s voice crackles back. “Solid copy on the med assistance. Carry on to rally point. Over.”

“Roger copy.”

Brad watches as Ray fumbles for a second while hooking the radio to his flak jacket. A part of him wants to be mad, but he’s finding that he can’t be because his heart is still racing too fast in his chest. He doesn’t know why that is. He’s the Iceman; this type of shit doesn’t faze him.

“What the fuck are you doing?” Brad asks. He feels detached from all this, detached from everything except for his weapon and Ray and the thumping in his chest. He feels like he’s floating away, like maybe he needs Ray to pull him back down. “I’m fine.”

“You’re not fucking fine, Brad,” Ray says, his voice cracking in the middle. He moves his hand like he wants to run his fingers through his hair, and meets his Kevlar instead. “You got shot, you dumb motherfucker, and now you’re bleeding all over my Humvee.”

“It’s not that bad,” Trombley says, leaning over. “When did you two turn into a bunch of girls?”

Brad looks down at his arm; he’s bleeding, more than he thought. It doesn’t hurt all that bad, but blood is staining his cammies and smearing on the seat behind him. He thinks maybe he should put some pressure on the wound; thinks maybe he’s about to have a heart attack, the way his heart’s going. Why is it doing that? Trombley’s right; it’s not that bad. Brad’s had worse before he was even in the military. He’s fine.

“It’s my Humvee,” is all Brad can think to say, and after a startled pause, Ray laughs at that, just a little.

“Yeah, yeah, fuck you,” Ray says, the corners of his mouth turned up in what looks like relief. It makes Brad’s heart stop racing a bit, but not enough. He takes a couple of slow, deep breaths, but they don’t help much.

“Sergeant,” Trombley says, “if you had died, would they bring someone new in to be team leader, or would we have all just gotten field promotions?”

“Fuck that!” Walt yells down to them. Sometimes, Brad forgets that Walt can even hear them, but apparently he can well enough. “The Iceman ain’t dying!”

“Yeah,” Ray agrees, the normalcy in his voice sounding forced, “and even if he did, your psycho ass isn’t getting a promotion.”

There’s a minute after that where none of them say anything, just bounce around in their victor as Ray drives, and then Rolling Stone lets out a long breath.

“I almost died like twelve times back there,” he says.

Brad glances at Ray, only to find that Ray’s already looking at him. Ray rolls his eyes and then looks back towards the road.

“See, this is what I’m talking about,” Ray says, his voice purposefully loud, and Brad settles himself in for another rant. It’s nice, familiar, even if it's not coming easy to any of them. He still feels amped up, can't stop his heart from racing in a way that it shouldn't be, not over one little firefight. “This fucking liberal pussy bullshit is everywhere, these days; no one can take a good, old-fashioned ambush anymore. I mean, fuck, Encino Man’ll probably put the reporter in for the Navy Cross, and he’s not even fucking enlisted, you know? And he didn’t do shit.”

Rolling Stone barks out a laugh and says, “I’d accept it.”

“I know you would,” Ray tells him. “We’re turning you into a self-interested asshole, and believe me, I’ve never been more proud, but it’s like—you know the Phantom Time Hypothesis? You do fuck all, homes, and you get a medal. Years later, everyone remembers you as the guy who single-handedly won the war, and all because command is a bunch of dumbfucks. Do you know what I’m saying?”

“No,” Rolling Stone says, laughter still in his voice.

Ray glances at Brad out of the corner of his eye, and then glances away just as quickly when he realizes he's been caught.

"Look," Ray starts, like he's planning on taking them to school with whatever he's saying next, "we were supposed to cross a bridge in our shitty fucking Humvees, and these Iraqis stopped us by putting shit in the road. They just fucking—they put shit in the road. Is our intelligence really that fucking retarded that they didn't know we wouldn't be able to cross it?" He gasps, like maybe he's just come up with something brilliant, and then says, "You know what we should do, Brad? We should get some guys to do some recon before we do stupid fucking shit like that. Does anyone know where we could find someone that knows how to do some reconnaissance? At this point, I'll accept basic level shit, like, a dude with binoculars or even—"

“Don’t these hajis ever sleep, Sergeant?” Trombley asks, interrupting the conversation.

“It’s those fucking pajamas that they wear,” Ray answers instead, and even though he’s finally back to sounding like he’s relaxed now that he's had a good rant, Brad knows better; he can see in the set of Ray’s shoulders, in the grip of his fingers on the steering wheel, that he’s still angry that they even drove into that in the first place. Brad’s heart isn’t racing anymore, but it’s not quite back to normal, either, and so he takes a deep, controlled breath. “They nap all day, party all night. It’s a glamorous fucking life, Trombley.”

“Nothing more glamorous than having your women and children blown up,” Brad says, and he feels like Poke for it. And it's weird, but he likes that Ray's talking. He's never noticed Ray's voice before, and he doesn't know why the fuck he's noticing it now, but it's nice; it suits him. Brad thinks maybe there's something wrong with him, wonders what the fuck is going on, because suddenly Ray talking is calming him down, and realizing that only riles him right back up. "Now shut the fuck up and just drive.”

Ray nods like maybe he’s going to do that, but then because he has to have the last word, he says, “Only because you’ve got a boo boo, Bradley.”

Brad doesn’t say anything, just looks out the window and tries to keep what he’s feeling off his face. Give Ray an inch…

 

They get to the rally point, and the second the victor is stopped, Brad removes his hand from the bullet graze and goes to open his door. Most of his hand is red with blood, but he grabs the door handle anyways and steps out into the dim morning light, his weapon hanging from his other shoulder.

“Wait up, homes!” Ray calls out after him, as he’s walking away.

“Check the tires, Ray,” Brad orders, even though he wants Ray with him, and each step away gets progressively more difficult. It makes no sense; Brad is the Iceman and Brad does everything by himself, and he can hear Walt say, “He’s fine, calm down,” and that’s the truth. Brad's fine. He’s fine.

Brad cuts through the Humvees, looking for the LT so they can go over the rundown of the skirmish. He’ll want to know what the fuck happened, and Brad wants to hear what the other team leaders have to say. Brad thinks everyone else fared alright, but he wasn’t paying much attention to the comms in the Humvee, focusing instead on his arm and keeping his eyes on the road, and on how Ray looked like he might fall apart, leaving no one but Brad to hold him together.

The LT spots him and walks over, his brow furrowed and his mouth pinched tight.

“Brad,” he says. “How bad is it?”

“It’s nothing,” Brad says. He hopes Fick doesn’t notice the blood, but knows that’s a long shot. He wonders if Ray’s cleaning off the seat. “And the other victors?”

“We’re fine,” the LT says. “Pappy got hit, but he’s alright, getting medevac’d. Go track down Doc Bryan and get your arm taken care of. We’ve got time, and I need you patched up.”

Brad just shakes his head, and because that’s what he does, he says, “I’m fine, sir.”

“Brad,” Fick insists. “Get it taken care of. That’s an order. I don’t want to see it getting infected.”

“Sir,” Brad says in confirmation of orders, and when he does, he sees Doc Bryan heading over at two o’clock.

“Come find me when you’re done,” Fick says, and then he walks away, leaving Brad with the doc.

It takes Tim all of two seconds before he says, “That’s nothing; I’ll just stitch you up real quick.”

“Thanks, Doc,” Brad says. He still doesn’t feel right, but he isn’t about to say it. “I appreciate it.”

Doc Bryan shrugs the comment away, and sits Brad on the front bumper of the closest Humvee with more gentleness than Brad probably needs. He goes through his med kit, talking the entire time, like Brad was some skittish child.

“I’m just gonna clean up the wound and give it a couple stitches,” he says. “It shouldn't hurt at all, and you'll be good to go. Jacket off.”

Brad shrugs out of his flak jacket, sitting stiffly where he is, and the bullet graze really doesn’t look that bad. A dozen stitches, maybe; Brad would’ve done just as well without any. He doesn't want to be there. He wants to be back in his vehicle, back with his men. He probably shouldn’t have snapped at Ray like that; Brad would have been concerned, too, had their roles been reversed. He’s not going to apologize, but he figures Ray’ll know he's sorry, anyways.

Walt walks past in the distance with a red light, holding a large jug of clean water, Trombley and the reporter a few feet behind him as they head back towards their victor. Just the three of them. No Ray. Brad wonders where Ray is.

“Anything else wrong?” Tim asks. He’s wearing gloves and threading a needle. “You’re sitting pretty tense.”

“No,” Brad says, snapped out of his thoughts. The doc doesn’t look like he buys it, but he doesn’t say anything.

Ray says something, though, because of course Ray can’t do as he’s fucking told and leave well enough alone; he’s found Brad from across the camp and is now squinting his eyes at them as he tries to see through the darkness. Brad relaxes against the front of the Humvee, and kicks one foot out hard at Ray’s nearest ankle in retaliation. He leaves his foot out afterwards, their two shins crossing in the cold nighttime air.

It’s strange, how Ray’s being there makes Brad feel somehow safer, as if Doc doesn’t have Brad’s best interests in mind.

“Break it to me quick, Doc,” Ray says like it’s a joke, but there’s a look of worry on his face that says otherwise, his eyes flickering back and forth between the two of them. He finally settles for looking at Brad’s face, not even his bullet wound, and that’s unexpected. “Is he gonna last the night?”

Doc Bryan shakes his head a bit like he can’t believe he has to put up with this, and then as he slips the needle through Brad’s skin for the first time, he says, “He’s fine. Should’ve said something about the bond, though.”

Brad cuts a glance at the doc.

“Bond?” he says. “What are you talking about?”

“You took the class,” Doc Bryan says, not looking up from his work. “You know the Corps likes to know who’s bonded, just in case something happens. They want to avoid lawsuits.”

Brad’s eyes dart to Ray, just for a second, and Ray’s eyes are huge, like he can’t believe what he’s hearing, that Brad’s somehow gotten bonded. Brad can’t believe it, either.

“I’m not bonded,” Brad says, because he’s not. The doc has to know this. Ray has to know this. Who the fuck would he be bonded to?

“I won’t say anything, although we’ll have to submit the proper paperwork,” Tim continues, like he has more important things to be doing. And he does. “But I imagine most everyone already knows; Ray’s been practically broadcasting your potential, and you’re not exactly subtle yourself.”

“What the fuck are you talking about?” Brad asks, and this time, blood is rushing in his ears. He feels lightheaded, his heart is racing and he can hardly breathe, because—because this is a sick fucking joke. He thinks back to the ambush, to how he knew to look to Ray in the middle of all that chaos; there was so much going on, and Brad found him without a second thought, just seconds before he could’ve died. Brad was worried about Ray more than anyone else, but Brad’s not bonded to Ray; Brad would know if he was, would know if they even had the potential to be. There’s no way he’s bonded at all. Brad doesn’t want to be bonded, doesn’t want Ray, doesn’t want—

Ray wraps his fingers around Brad’s bare wrist and just like that, Brad can feel the tension seep out of his body as he relaxes, and even though his mind is still reeling, he feels like a Sunday morning on the back deck of his house.

“How can you tell?” Ray asks the doc. He sounds shattered, and Brad would normally comment on it, but he’s sure he looks even worse.

“The basic signs,” Tim says, and he ties off the thread in his hands. “Body language, heart rate, emotional effect. You bee-lined for us, despite the fact that we’re on the opposite side of camp from your victor, and hidden behind this Humvee; Brad visibly relaxed the second you were here, stopped looking off at everyone else running about.” He peels his gloves off, looks at the two of them. “How long has it been?” he asks.

“Can we reverse it?” Brad asks, ignoring Ray’s tightening fingers. “How do we get rid of it?”

The surprise on Doc Bryan’s face is clearly visible as he asks, “Reverse it? You can’t. Why would you even want to?”

“Look, homes, maybe we’re not even bonded,” Ray tries. “Those symptoms don’t exactly sound foolproof.”

Brad thinks of how, back in the Humvee, he kept feeling Ray’s worry and mistaking it for his own, how he thought maybe he was having a heart attack because he didn't have anything else to attribute it to. He thinks of Tricia and his sad excuse for a best fucking friend, and how they’re having a baby together, living their lives together while Brad risks his in this shithole.

He jerks his wrist free from Ray’s grasp even though he doesn’t really want to, because Ray’s hand on his skin feels nice. He knows, logically, that he doesn’t want Ray touching him, never has before, but now it feels like he does. Everything’s so fucked up that Brad can’t really tell what he wants, what’s him and what’s the bond. Twenty minutes ago, he wouldn’t have even been thinking like this, but now he wonders how much he’s done in the past, thinking it was because he wanted to when really some bullshit biological imperative was telling him that he did.

“I don’t want to be bonded,” he says flatly, and he has to force the words out of his mouth even though he means them. “This is a fucking mistake, and it’s a problem that I wasn’t aware was even a possibility until right fucking now.”

“Homes, I don’t think—” Ray starts, but Brad cuts him off.

“Ray, not now,” he says. “Doc?”

Doc Bryan looks between the two of them and says, “You two honestly weren’t aware? Not even that you had potential?”

“No,” Brad bites out. He needs to leave, needs to get away from all of this, from Ray and the idea that Brad's DNA just signed his free will away, binding him to a life of domestic misery with a buck-toothed, goat-fucking piece of trailer trash.

“What do you think?” Ray asks sarcastically, and Tim shrugs helplessly.

“You can’t break a bond,” he says. “No one’s ever wanted to before, and at this point, we don’t even know how long you’ve been bonded for. As for how it started, a big trigger is moments of heightened emotion, but that’s not the only thing that could have caused it, and fucking everything’s heightened out here, anyway.”

“Brad doesn’t have emotions,” Ray attempts to joke. Brad doesn’t say anything because he’s always liked Ray, always trusted Ray, since the day they met, and he likes to keep Ray close because of it.

Brad wonders how much of that was him actually trusting Ray, and how much was—

“Ray almost got shot,” Brad says. That’s heightened emotion. Maybe if that caused it, if the bond is still that fragile, that new, then maybe they can break it. Maybe it works that way.

Ray rolls his eyes.

“Fuck you, I did not,” he says. “You got actually shot.”

“I told you, I’m fine,” Brad snaps, and he knows that arguing like this is unusual for them, and should be embarrassing, but he can’t bring himself to care.

“You’re not fine, you dumb Hebrew motherfucker,” Ray says. “I wasn’t anywhere near you, and I could feel how bad that hurt.”

“That might be it,” Tim says with a shrug. “There’s nothing else I can really tell you; I've never met anyone who didn't just know before. I’m sorry, I am, but a bond is a bond and it’s there for a reason. It’s not a medical diagnosis; there’s nothing that I can tell you that you don’t already know. Just—accept it. It’ll all work out in the end.”

And that is exactly what Brad’s worried about. He doesn’t want it to work out, not like this.

“Doc,” he acknowledges, with one sharp nod, and then he walks away, ignores Ray calling his name, ignores the way Doc Bryan says, “He’ll come around,” like he knows shit about Brad.

Brad wants to turn back, wants to look at Ray and wait for him to catch up, but instead he puts one foot in front of the other, again and again and again, and puts as much distance between the two of them as he can, even though it puts a pressure in his chest that hurts worse than anything Tricia ever did.

Brad refuses to deal with this bullshit.

 

Word travels fast, because Bravo Company is comprised of a bunch of interfering, gossip-mongering shit-talkers who chose to focus on the strife of others rather than use that time to recognize what fourteen-year-old girls they are. Everyone knows by sunrise.

Brad doesn’t say anything to anyone; half of him is still in denial, but the other half, the half that realizes this, is going a hundred miles an hour, trying to figure out how to get rid of the bond, how to undo it, how to break it, anything. He can’t exactly avoid Ray, but Brad’s not going to spend any unnecessary free time with him, not going to joke around, not going to sing any goddamn Lovin’ You in the Humvee. Brad’s going to be professional, and that’s it, and then maybe this fucking bond will realize it’s not wanted.

It’s been almost twenty-three hours since Brad’s had anything to eat, and so he heads over to his Humvee to dig through their ratfuck bag for something decent. He’s not hungry, not really, but he also recognizes that he’s just undergone a pretty fucking huge shock, and who knows when he’ll get the time to eat later, so he sticks to routine, to normalcy, and goes to eat because intellectually he knows he should.

Ray’s sitting in the shade of their victor, leaning back against the driver’s side wheel; Brad glances at him, but Ray’s asleep, Kevlar on and eyes shut. Brad likes how he feels when he’s looking at Ray, like he’s invincible, only that makes him so mad—so incredibly angry—that he tears his gaze away and focuses instead on what he’s doing.

Tricia used to love surfing, but when she bonded, she stopped doing that, because Brad’s asshole best friend couldn’t really swim. Instead, she took up fucking BASE jumping, because it was something the two of them could do together. Brad told himself that he’d never—he would never—only now here he is, bonded, and probably already halfway to being a different person because of it.

Brad doesn’t want to change; Brad likes who he is.

“No way? You’re serious?” Garza says loudly, his voice floating over from somewhere Brad can’t see.

“Screwby, man,” Q-Tip says. “I heard that shit myself.

“For real?” Trombley asks slowly. “I didn’t even know they had potential.”

“That’s ‘cause you ain’t done your Recon training yet, BK,” Q-Tip replies, and then over everyone’s laughter, Chaffin yells, “Those two are so fucking married already, anyway. Iceman takes no shit unless it’s Person’s.”

And Brad just—he realizes now just how true that is, now that he’s bonded, and he can’t believe he didn’t notice it before. Ray was always just a good friend, his RTO, and Brad thought that’s all it was.

“It’s not just BK,” Christeson says. “The Iceman didn’t even know about it.”

Brad snaps his eyes back at Ray, because Doc would never say anything, and who else would’ve fucking known that? Ray’s still where he was, leaning against the tire, only this time, he’s wide awake and looking back at Brad.

“Not me,” Ray says quickly, his eyes wide, hands up and palms out in a gesture probably meant to placate Brad. “Homes, I didn’t say anything.

Brad doesn’t bother responding, just clenches his fingers tighter around the MRE in his hands and tells himself that this isn’t permanent, and that the talk will die down, just like it did with Patterson and Fawcett. He can feels Ray’s unease just as strongly as if he was feeling it himself.

He’s just about to take his MRE and walk away when the LT speaks up from behind him.

“Brad,” he says. “A word?”

Brad turns around and just nods at him. He knows the LT better than he probably should, and Fick’s not going to talk about it, because he’s aware of what goes on around him, and he’ll know that Brad won’t want to. He’s a good guy; as good a Marine as Brad’s ever seen.

He tosses his unopened MRE back into the ratfuck bag and follows after the LT. Behind him, he can hear Q-Tip and all them freaking out, telling each other to shut the fuck up, and, Oh shit, do you think he heard?

Brad ignores them.

 

They head out a few hours later, driving to their next checkpoint, where command will probably fuck shit up again, and blame the grunts. Ray takes Trombley's seat in the Humvee, meaning they have to shift around because no one trusts Trombley behind the wheel; Walt drives, then, and Trombley's up in the turret. Brad's glad he doesn’t have to sit next to Ray; he doesn't want to even think of the bond, and although there's a constant tug in his navel like he needs to be closer to Ray, Brad knows he doesn't want to be closer, and this is as much distance as they can get in the Humvee, a sort of fuck you to biology.

"This is really cool," Trombley shouts out, his hands on the MK-19 as they drive along a dirt road. "I bet I could kill a ton of hajis with this."

"Yeah, just don't fucking blow my head off," Walt shouts back, and he's smiling as he does, like he's dealing with his psycho younger brother instead of just some random, psycho Marine. Brad figures that's kind of what Trombley is to them, anyways: their younger brother. They talk so much shit about him—to his face—but if anyone outside of Recon so much as tried to, they'd get the shit beat out of them.

"She wouldn't," Trombley says, and Ray scoffs from where he is in the back seat, his eyes closed and his head against the window as he tries to sleep.

"She? Jesus Christ, Trombley, it's fucking inanimate," he says. "Who entrusted this crazy fucking psychopath with a grenade launcher, anyway?"

"Ray," Brad says, and that's it, just Ray, like that conveys any of what he's thinking or feeling. He means to say, Lay the fuck off, because he's not in the mood to deal with them arguing like a bunch of fucking children, but he doesn't get that far because then, out of nowhere, he's hit with a wave of resentment that he knows is not his own. He's not sure what Ray's feeling that towards—their shitty situation, maybe—but it serves as a reminder that they're fucking saddled together, especially when Brad opens his mouth with Sorry on the tip of his tongue. That's not like him, and it makes him angry enough that he just shuts down, pulls away.

"Fucking ridiculous," Ray mutters under his breath, and he slumps a bit to get more comfortable against the window.

Brad hasn't really talked to Ray since they found out about everything, and if this is how it's going to be for the rest of the tour, Brad thinks maybe he needs to. He doesn't know what there is to say other than, I don't want you, and, I don't need you, but there's got to be something that'll make this bearable, at least. Ray didn't seem too much like he was thrilled with being bonded, either; maybe they can reach a happy fucking medium where they both just do nothing and ignore it, and then things can go back to normal.

The entire Humvee is beyond tense, an awkward silence filling up the empty spaces, and Brad thinks idly that it's a fucking shame, because Two-One was the best there was when they were on top of everything. He glances at Walt, just to check that he's still comfortable driving, and then looks out his window, scans the trees and the bushes as they drive past. Nobody says anything for a long time, but Rolling Stone keeps shifting in his seat like he's dying to.

"Alright, Reporter," Brad says finally, when it starts grating on his nerves. "Out with it."

"Right," Rolling Stone says, half apprehensive at being called out, and half not giving a fuck because he's paid to pay attention to other people's business. "Did Godfather say anything about the failed mission? He can't be logically hold you at fault; the failure was due to poor planning on his part."

"Everything's fine," Brad says after a beat. "We couldn't cross the bridge because they denied our request for a foot patrol, and that's on us; we should have made it across, anyway. But we got out only losing Pappy, and he's going to be fine. Could be worse; at least we have Fick going to bat for us."

"Yeah, Fick, great," Ray says sarcastically, and even though Brad'll never say it, he kind of agrees. Brad both likes and respects Fick, but Fick's as low on the totem pole as he can be, without being a grunt. Still, though, he's better than no one.

"Hey, come on," Walt says, his hands at ten and two on the wheel. "None of that; the LT's the best thing we've got going for us."

Ray doesn't say anything, and neither does Brad; Ray just tries to sleep and Brad looks out the window.

Trombley laughs to himself, barely loud enough for Brad to hear, and he shouts, "Shit, Sergeant, this is like when my mom and dad told me they were getting a divorce."

"Shut the hell up," Walt yells back, lightly enough that there's no sting, but serious enough that he gets his point across. Brad almost wants to laugh at the thought of Walt trying to protect him, or trying to protect Ray.

"Wait, what?" Rolling Stone asks.

"Nothing," Brad says. It's bad enough that the rest of the Company now knows, even though Brad hadn't said a word of it to anyone, and he doubts that Ray did, either; the only saving grace is that at least the Reporter doesn't know, can't write about it in that fucking notebook of his.

"Brad," Walt says quietly. "It's not—"

"Wait," Rolling Stone says, loud enough that he's clearly not thinking about how loud he's being. Brad knows what that means, knows that the reporter isn't a fucking idiot, and it's only a matter of time. Brad can practically hear his gears turning. "Did you two bond?"

"Not a word, homes," Ray says, sitting up and pointing at Rolling Stone. Brad's glad that at least they're on the same page about that. "That's not for you."

"Yeah," Rolling Stone says, his hands up, palms out, in a gesture of peace. "Yeah, of course."

“Good,” Ray says, and he slumps back over to try to sleep. He’s apparently appeased, but Brad thinks it's bullshit; the reporter can say whatever he wants when he's not with them. Odds are, he probably will, and there’s fuck all Brad can do about it.

 

Ray doesn’t talk to Brad for their entire six-hour drive, and Brad doesn’t really talk to him, either. It’s strange, being in the Humvee like that, and Walt sings country for most of it, just to fill up the silence. Brad’s okay with country, if it’s Walt.

“But only if it’s Walt,” Brad says. “You are the rule, Reporter, and not the exception.”

“Why’s that?” Rolling Stone asks, and Ray answers.

“Fuck, Reporter, he’s got the voice of a pre-pubescent angel,” he says, and that’s sort of how it goes, Brad and Ray not talking to each other, even though they partake in the same conversations.

The whole drive, though, Brad can feel it, Ray’s anger and resentment, his fear, and Brad doesn’t really get it because none of this is permanent. He knows this, tells himself this: the bond is only there until they find out how to break it. Maybe Ray doesn’t realize that, though; maybe he thinks he’s stuck with Brad forever. Brad gets that. He wouldn’t want to be stuck with him, either; wouldn’t want to be stuck with anyone.

It pisses him off, though, how Ray’s acting like this is all Brad’s fault, avoiding Brad and ignoring him, feeling all those fucking emotions and sending them Brad’s way just because he can. That, Brad doesn’t get.

When they stop in the middle of nowhere and Walt starts rolling out the cammie nets, Brad gets orders from the LT to take stock of how many MK-19 rounds they have left in their Humvee. It’s good, at least in a way, because it gives him something to do, and to focus on, and he needs that now, because without it, he finds himself focusing on Ray, and he doesn’t want that.

Brad leans over the back of their victor and moves around their snivel gear and the ratfuck bag until he finds what he’s looking for, boxes and boxes of rounds for the MK-19 and their Carbine rifles. He’s about to take count when someone speaks up and interrupts him.

“Hey, Brad,” Ray says, like nothing’s wrong between them.

“Not now, Ray,” Brad replies. “I’m busy.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Ray says. “You’re always busy, you emotionally stunted retard.”

Brad looks up at him at that. Ray looks exactly the same as he always has—a little bit tired, a little bit strung out on Ripped Fuel—and if he didn’t already know how Ray was handling this, he’d never believe it.

“People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones,” Brad reminds him. “Your fucking emotions are all over the place.”

Ray tilts his head a bit, like he doesn’t get what Brad means, and says, “What?”

“In the victor,” Brad says slowly. He ignores everything else that he’s seeing and feeling and pushes it away until all that’s left is a Sergeant of the US Marine Corps. “You ignoring everyone and refusing to drive? I get that you’re pissed off at the situation, I get that you’re pissed off at me for being a part of it, but you need to snap the fuck out of it, because we’re still at war in fucking tin-plated Humvees, and I need my RTO. We’ll figure out how to get rid of this, but until then, as your superior, I expect more professionalism and less fucking resentment.”

“Brad,” Ray says, and he doesn’t look chagrined or anything like that. “I’m not—that was you feeling that. That’s not me.”

Brad tightens his fingers around the side of the Humvee. Ray’s wrong. Ray’s the one feeling those things; Brad made sure to specifically rationalize the situation so that he didn’t have to worry, because this is not forever, not like it is for everyone else. But maybe that didn’t work; maybe Brad doesn’t know what the fuck he’s feeling. It wouldn’t be a first. He wouldn’t have known before.

“Homes,” Ray says. “I know it’s new, it’s hard, whatever, but you’ve making me angry as fuck for the past few hours.”

Brad’s barely talked to Ray all day. He’s done nothing to make Ray mad, and so he knows exactly what Ray means.

“I don’t have time for this shit,” Brad says, and he starts walking away. “I have a job to do.”

“Brad,” Ray calls out after him. He sounds disappointed, and he feels it, too.

Brad ignores him, keeps walking.

 

Brad avoids Ray for the next day and a half. It’s not something he’s particularly proud of, not something he lets get in the way of doing his job, but every time Ray tries to seek him out, Brad makes sure he’s conveniently busy, always with Poke or the LT or Pappy. Brad doesn’t want to talk to Ray; Brad doesn’t like sharing, and this fucking bond prevents him from remaining detached, because it spreads him wide for Ray to read like an open book.

Ray starts getting frustrated the second time he gets shut down—Brad can feel that much—and so he’s all wound up for the rest of the day, bouncing on his toes as he stands and cussing more and taking more Ripped Fuel than he should, even though Trombley tells him to get some sleep, and that he’ll cover Ray’s watch. Brad hates it, how Ray’s sleeplessness and the Ripped Fuel in Ray’s system feels to him.

By the time Ray finally corners Brad to talk, it’s as Brad’s walking off to take a shit, and Ray’s at the end of his rope.

"Are you fucking kidding me, Ray?" Brad asks, standing there with his box in hand, and Ray just shrugs.

"Come on, homes," he says. "This way you can do what you have to do, while simultaneously no longer avoiding me like a bitch. It’s pretty fucking smart of me, you gotta give me that much."

And it is, that's the worst part. Brad can't walk away like he's been doing without looking like a spineless, confrontation-avoiding, fight-hating pussy. Brad loves confrontation, loves fights; he's good at those things.

For a second, he thinks about tugging down his pants and taking a shit right there, just to spite Ray, but Ray’s a fucked up, social reject degenerate, and he’d probably find that hilarious. So instead, Brad just stands there holding that makeshift shitter and looks at Ray.

"Wow," Ray says, when he realizes that Brad's staying put. "You're a class act, Brad, I've always said it."

"What do you want, Ray?" Brad asks. He's not playing these games; he's not interested, and now he's feeling nervous because Ray can't keep his feelings to himself, and that pisses Brad off. He wonders if Ray can feel that, his anger.

Ray rolls his eyes like he's not impressed, and says, "Can we not, homes? You're acting like a fucking child."

"I'm acting like a child?" Brad says. He's honestly fucking surprised by that, because Ray's the one who switched Humvee seats just to get away from Brad, and Brad only ever gives as good as he gets.

"Yeah," Ray says. "You're acting like my four-year-old niece. I thought you had a warrior spirit, or whatever shit you're always saying, but I guess not."

"Watch it," Brad says, a warning, because even though they are what they are, Brad's still his superior and Ray can't fucking talk to him like that.

"Yeah, yeah," Ray says, waving Brad's comment away. "Listen, just—I know you don't want to talk about it, but we kind of have to, homes."

"I don't have anything to say," Brad says, which is the opposite of the truth and Ray would know that was a lie even if he didn't have this fucking bond telling him that it was. Brad tries again. "I have zero interest in being bonded to you," he says slowly. "You're my friend, you know you are, but I do not want more. And unless I'm a fucking idiot, you never seemed to want more from me, either."

"I think you underestimate how fucking awesome I am," Ray says, a little bit like maybe he’s planned it, but also a little bit like he’s taken too much goddamn Ripped Fuel. “You seem to think I’m Satan, but it actually wouldn’t be that bad, being with me: previous partners have ranked me a seven-point-five out of ten, and that doesn’t come easy, Brad.”

"It would be that bad," Brad answers honestly. It would be that bad being with anyone; Brad doesn’t want that now, hasn’t wanted that for a long time, and Ray’s taking this too lightly, like it’s just about getting his rocks off, and it’s not. It’s about tying himself to one person for the rest of his fucking life, and having to mold himself and his life into meeting the expectation of someone else. "I don't want to be bonded."

"Yeah."

Ray's quiet for a minute after that, and Brad's been wanting to shut Ray up for years, only now that he has, it just makes something twist in his gut, and he doesn't like it. He wonders what Ray's thinking; this bond is useless as shit.

“Hey, homes,” Ray finally says, “you know how some people think the green M&Ms contain aphrodisiacs because she was always super slutty in commercials?”

“What the fuck are you talking about?” Brad asks. He’ll never understand how Ray’s brain works, or if it even works at all, even when he’s not on stimulants.

“I once ate like, five hundred of them,” he says. “Solid seven-point-five.”

Brad cracks a small smile at that, can't help it, and says, "Not even a team of certified professionals could figure out what the hell is wrong with you."

"Fuckin' A," Ray says with a small laugh. "Big Gay Brad, you're making me blush."

"Unbelievable," Brad says. For a second, it feels like it did before, back when he and Ray were just friends, and that was it. They're still just friends, even now, but there's the added pressure and stress that comes from having this bond between them, a bond that neither of them even wants. Brad thinks it's only a matter of time until that becomes too much, and he and Ray forget how to be friends because of it.

Brad shakes his head, mostly to himself, and tries to figure out how to say what he wants to say. He's shit with words, has always been shit with words, and sometimes, it seems like they're all Ray knows.

It turns out he doesn't have to say anything, because then Ray says, "So, what's the plan, homes? How do we deal with this shit? Just ignore each other?"

"Until we can figure out what else to do."

Ray's silent again after that. He squints his eyes against the sun as he looks out at the horizon, and Brad just watches him. He thinks Ray looks good like that, in the sun, and then immediately takes it back, because that's not him, that's the bond. And maybe that's what Ray's dealing with, too; maybe he's only joking about sleeping with Brad because of the bond, Brad doesn’t know.

"This is going to be super fucking hard, homes," Ray says, looking at him. "I'm talking path of most resistance kind of shit."

Brad tilts his head in acknowledgement, and then says, “I refuse to believe we can’t beat some shitty biological imperative.”

"Yeah, I don't really think that's possible, homes," Ray says, super skeptical.

"Ray," Brad says, but it's not sharp; he's not warning Ray from doing anything. He hardly recognizes the way he says it, like he needs help, and doesn't know what he means by it.

Apparently Ray does, though, because he just says, "I know."

The two of them stand there for a minute, Ray with his hands in his pockets and Brad holding his shitter, and it's so ridiculous, should be the most awkward situation Brad's ever been in, but for all bonding and heart-to-heart and everything, Brad feels as relaxed, as comfortable, as he ever has, calmed with the knowledge that the two of them are in this together, and that neither of them wants to be.

He looks to Ray, and Ray's staring out at a village, klicks and klicks away. Brad can hardly picture it, being with Ray, except for how he can picture it perfectly. Maybe, if there wasn't this bond making them want it. Maybe then they could've had something, Brad thinks.

"You know," Ray says, as he looks out at Iraq, "I used to really want to be bonded."

Brad feels like there's probably an insult in there, somewhere, but later, even though he replays that comment over in his head, he still can't find one.

 

Brad spends the next four days talking to Ray only when necessary. It’s awkward in the Humvee because of it, but none of them gets hurt, and explaining everything to Rolling Stone keeps them busy, so no one complains. Brad doesn’t think anything’s changed with the bond since he learned about it, and while it’s not gone away, at least it hasn’t gotten any worse. He’s not sure what he expected, but it’s not like they’re constantly in each other’s heads, not even close. It makes him think that maybe, when they’re back stateside for libo, they’ll be able to get rid of it completely by just staying away from each other. Maybe that’s the way to break it. It sucks, because Brad genuinely likes Ray, but he doesn’t like Ray that much, not enough to want to be with him for the rest of their lives, and that’s really what matters; Brad doesn’t want to be with anyone forever.

When they first make it to the factory in Baghdad, the LT tells them that they should try to get some sleep, and Brad thinks, Fat fucking chance. He doesn’t sleep anymore, not really, even though he’s exhausted, but being in relative safety does sound nice.

There’s a lot of firefight going on outside the gates, even though it’s the middle of the day and they’re in a secured city. Brad’s sitting around eating an MRE when a loud explosion goes off, but he doesn’t bother getting up to see what it was; he’s got enough shit on his hands with this Captain America bullshit, with Kocher and Redman being suspended. He’s not looking to pitch in any more than he has to.

“A fucking car bomb at the main gate,” Ray explains as he walks over to where the rest of Two-One is sitting. “Motherfuckers from One-Five are lighting up the street like it’s cool.”

He takes off his Kevlar and sits next to Brad like he’s forgotten. Brad doesn’t say anything.

“Should we go help them out?” Trombley asks, and they all just stare at him for a second like he’s crazy, because he is. This is supposed to be their downtime; none of them want to move just on the off chance they’ll get to shoot something. They’ve had enough of that already.

Brad sits there in silence for the next few minutes, however long it takes him to finish his MRE. Ray doesn’t try talking to him again, but he does rag on the reporter a bit, more of the usual bullshit—No Purple Heart, no disability check for you, Reporter—and Brad sort of misses it, misses getting to listen in without feeling like he was giving in. He wants to stay with Ray, and so he gets up and hangs with Kocher instead, focuses on Kocher’s problems instead of his own.

That night, sleeping in the open air of the factory with the rest of Bravo Company, Brad has a dream.

“Alright, homes,” Ray says in it, like he’s making a presentation. “I’m gonna fucking wow you with my culinary prowess right now.”

He’s standing in the kitchen in Brad’s California house, half silhouetted by the bright light streaming in through the window above the sink, and Brad can just barely make out Ray’s smile from where he is, reading the U-T San Diego at the kitchen table. Ray’s hair is wet, and he’s wearing board shorts and an old shirt of Brad’s that’s stretched out at the neck. Brad can feel exactly how Ray feels about him.

“Doubtful,” Brad says idly. He’s not really paying attention because Ray talks mostly for himself. Brad listens when it’s important.

“Fuck you. I’m making a fucking man’s omelet, homes. I put so much meat in there, you don’t even know. If you don’t have a heart attack by ten, you’re doing breakfast wrong, that’s all I’m saying.”

Brad smiles a little at that and looks up. Ray’s cracking open an egg with the biggest knife they’ve got, and something about that makes Brad’s heart seize up, makes him feel so fucking fond that he gets out of his chair and walk over to the sink.

He molds himself against Ray’s back and slips one hand up underneath Ray’s shirt, the tip of his pinky sliding underneath the waistband of Ray’s shorts. His skin is warm and familiar against Brad’s palm.

“Fuck, homes,” Ray says, but there’s a crack in his voice and Brad feels disproportionately proud at being the one to have put it there.

“Yeah,” he says.

He bites Ray’s shoulder.

He wakes up.

It’s dark out and a sniper takes a shot from somewhere up on the rooftop. Brad’s heart isn’t racing but it feels like his ribcage is too small for everything that it’s holding in, and he feels happy, really happy.

Across the small quad that Bravo’s sleeping in, Ray sits up on his elbows and looks at him like maybe he feels how happy Brad is and wants to know what’s going on. Brad looks back for a second, and when Ray quirks him a hopeful smile, he lies back down, stares at the night sky until morning comes.

 

Brad does some fucking stupid shit the next day because his head’s not in the right place.

“Get me the det kit,” he says. He’s not entirely sure how long he’s been standing there in the garden, just staring at the bomb. Poke looks at him like he’s a fucking idiot.

“Dog,” Poke says, half like he’s tired of Brad’s shit and half like he can’t believe what he’s hearing, “this is not cool.”

“Just go and get it from the truck, Poke,” Brad says, final. He wipes away some dirt from the outer casing of the explosive, and Brad doesn’t need to so much as turn his head to know that Ray’s shaking his, because he knows Ray, bond or no bond, and he’s an insufferable little shit.

It’s a miracle this thing hasn’t gone off yet, Brad thinks. Kids play there, and now he can actually do something, can fix it. For all the civilians they’ve shot and blown to shit, he finally has the chance to save a few, and Brad’s going to take it. He doesn’t have it in him to give a fuck if it goes wrong; he’s not one for sitting on his ass, twiddling his thumbs.

“This is some bullshit,” Poke says as he’s stalking away to get it, and Brad understands how he feels. Not about the controlled detonation, but about having things be out of his control; that, Brad gets. He wants to be in control again, wants to have a say over something.

Ray’s nearby as Brad does it, talking an endless stream of whatever comes to mind, like none of this fazes him. Brad knows better, can feel Ray’s heart hammering inside his own chest, can feel the nervousness and the worry even as Ray’s saying, “—and the main guy has like to cut either the red wire or the black wire and he's sweating his balls off? And it's getting really intense. This is kinda like that. Who thought we'd be doing this shit—”

“Shut up, Ray,” Brad says, and Ray does.

Ray’s closer than he needs to be, closer than he should be, and Brad realizes then that if he goes, Ray goes, too. He wonders if that’s on purpose. It’s too much, even for Brad, and just makes him mad, pisses him off, and he has to fight to not let it ruin the good mood that successfully detonating the bomb puts him in.

Poke brings up the kids, then, ones that the BBC mentioned were killed, and Brad doesn’t know what he’s talking about. It puts a rock in the pit of his stomach, though, and there’s a small part of him that doesn’t want to know, even though he needs to. Brad recognizes that feeling in himself, the one that says that he needs to do something crazy just to stay sane—a hundred on his bike, big waves off the coast or volcano boarding in Nicaragua—and Ray looks at him, worried.

“Brah, they were playing on top of the tanks,” Lilley explains to him, “so the ROE said they were technically armed. General Mattis is on the radio saying this is the worst thing in the war so far.”

And Brad just—everything boils up for him, then, Ray and the war and the fact that he hasn’t washed his balls in hot water in three fucking weeks, and he says in disbelief, “They’re screwing this up. Fucking idiots. Don’t they fucking realize the world already hates us?”

He’s so mad in that moment, madder than he can ever remember being, and he channels that anger into attempting to detonate a second bomb, this time in a hole in someone’s backyard.

“We keep killing civilians, we’re gonna waste this fucking victory,” Brad says, when Poke tries to convince him not to give a fuck. It’s too late; Brad’s already angry, already cares too much.

Fick walks up just as Brad’s about to get started and orders him out.

“Sir, we’ve another MK-82,” Brad stresses, but Fick doesn’t care. Nobody gives a fuck anymore, and Brad’s not even sure why he does.

“I will not let you blow yourself up trying to maintain property values in Greater Baghdad,” the LT says. “That's a no-go.”

Brad wants to fucking deck someone, he’s so frustrated, and he thinks the LT recognizes that, recognizes that Brad’s not in the right headspace to do this and that none of this not about clearing the bomb from some Iraqi’s backyard, not really.

Brad hates that, how cognizant the LT is.

Later, when they get back to the factory, everyone wastes time by buying Iraqi gin and drinking and talking and shooting the shit. Brad’s not having any of that, though, because he’s not in the mood for people, rarely is. Instead, he’s off on his own, wandering the factory and trying to figure his shit out. He can feel Ray through the bond—laughing, happy, and under that, a steady stream of Brad, Brad, where’s Brad—and he can feel the bond itself, how it ties him to Ray like a rope circling the insides of his ribcage on one end, circling the insides of Ray’s on the other. And it’s new, he can feel that much, but the bond is stronger than it was a day ago, and that doesn’t bode well. The thought takes up a lot of space in his mind.

Brad can’t be at war like this; his head is all the fuck over the place.

He finds an empty staircase somewhere inside the factory and sits down, looks out through the grated gate at the street outside. He likes being a Marine, was born for it, but he hates this, the bullshit orders and the shit-for-brains command and the fact that they’ve probably killed more civilians than anything else. That’s not war; that’s just fucked.

The LT finds him sometime later, still on the staircase. He climbs a few steps, until he’s eye to eye with Brad while he’s standing, and then he smiles, just a little, like maybe he understands.

Brad figures that Fick understands more than anyone else does.

“You okay, Brad?” he asks, and Brad nods. The LT nods too, like he was expecting as much. “You’re doing what you can, which is more than a lot of people. Try not to let it get to you.”

“Sir,” Brad starts, “not to speak out of turn, but we’re now ruining everything that we’ve already established.”

“I know it looks that way,” the LT says slowly. “But maybe we’re not; maybe we’re just hesitant to recognize that we’re making it better.”

Brad looks at the LT and asks, “Are you talking about the civilians?”

And Fick asks back, no heat to it, “Are you?”

Brad doesn’t know.

 

Brad feels it immediately when Ray gets in the fight with Rudy. He’s been waiting for it—for something—because Ray’s been getting more and more agitated the longer he stayed out there, but when it happens… Brad’s heart leaps in his throat and he’s on his feet before he even realizes it.

When Rudy gets Ray in a hold and stars pummeling the shit out of him, Brad’s insides turn to ice. He rushes over there, his weapon still thrown over his shoulder, and he’s not even thinking about what he’s going to do, just that he has to do something, that he’d do anything he has to because that’s his RTO, that’s Ray, and Ray should never—he shouldn’t fucking ever

“You motherfucker! You goddamn fucking piece of shit!” Ray’s yelling. Garza is helping him up, pulling him back and away. “Rudy! You fucking PTSD psycho! You’re just like every other jock piece of shit in high school!” He turns to Gabe, says, “Get the fuck off me!”

And he’s crying. Brad doesn’t know what to do with that. He knows that Rudy got him pretty bad, and he knows that Ray’s just as tense and tired as the rest of them, but this is fucking nothing compared to what they’ve been through. It doesn’t make sense.

“Hey, Person, chill!” Poke says. “Maybe we shouldn’t play football anymore.”

Ray stalks away, scrubbing his hands over his face, and Rudy yells apologetically after him, “Ray! Brother! Ray!”

“You alright?” Brad asks, but it’s like they’ve flipped positions and now Ray’s the one ignoring him. He doesn’t answer, doesn’t stop moving, just keeps going and going until he’s gone, leaving Brad standing there with the rest of them.

“Goddamn it, Rudy,” Manimal says. “Go to your little quiet place and chant, motherfucker.”

Brad wants to follow Ray, wants to help him sort through his shit the same way he would Trombley or Walt, only now he doesn’t know if he wants to do that because of Ray or because of the bond. A part of him figures that they’re one in the same, and maybe that’s the point, now.

Thinking that just pisses him the fuck off, and so Brad waits, doesn’t go to find Ray afterwards, just digs through the ratfuck bag for a spaghetti MRE and sits with Poke and tries not to notice how Walt’s missing, too, and not just Ray. His fingers tighten around the MRE plastic, and he clenches his jaw, tells himself that he’s not mad, not jealous that Walt’s out there comforting Ray, while he’s sitting outside the factory, listening to Q-Tip talk about his ex-girlfriend who looked like Beyoncé. Brad doesn’t care about that shit; Brad doesn’t get jealous over Whiskey Tango, motor mouth Humvee drivers.

“Bullshit,” Christeson says, standing by their cobbled together free weights. “For real?”

“Yeah, man,” Q-Tip says. “Seein’ her naked? Mm! Screwby.”

The table erupts with cheers and shouts of disbelief, and Poke turns towards Brad, says, “Odds this idiot dated someone who looked like that? Slim to fucking none, dog.”

“Yeah,” Brad says.

“You alright?” Poke asks under his breath, like he knows that Brad wouldn’t want everyone to think there was something wrong.

“Yeah,” Brad says again. He doesn’t want to talk about it, and so he gets up to toss his MRE plastic, and leaves the group in favor of walking the hallways.

He’s pissed that he feels like this, that he’s worried about Ray when fucking nothing happened. He’s pissed that he got fucking bonded to a Whiskey Tango, socially deviant idiot—to someone he actually likes—when he doesn’t want to be bonded at all.

The halls of the base are quiet, as everyone’s either working out or sparring or going about their daily routine, and so Brad just wanders aimlessly, thinks about how he’s almost done with this tour and how, although it was a giant clusterfuck from start to finish, he just wants to do it again, another tour and another and another until he retires, because he’s a fucking warrior and this is what he was built for.

He doesn’t notice where he is, not really, not until he hears Ray around the corner.

“—deal with his bullshit for the rest of my life,” he saying, his quiet voice loud in the silence. “Does that make me a weak pussy or what?”

“No,” Walt says back, just as quietly. “It just makes you human, Ray. You can’t help it.”

“Yeah, right,” Ray says, and if he’s going to say something else, Brad doesn’t know, because Ray shuts right up the second Brad rounds the corner and sees them.

The two of them are sitting on the floor, their backs up against the wall, and they’re close enough that their arms touch. Ray’s got one leg sprawled out, his arms looped loosely around the other, and for a second Brad forgets about the bond and wants to go sit next to him on the other side, where Walt isn’t.

Ray scrubs at his face with his open palms when he notices Brad, and Brad can’t believe Ray’s letting Fruity Rudy get to him like this.

“Hey, Brad,” Walt says, and Brad just nods back once. Walt must realize what Brad’s not saying—what Brad doesn’t even realize himself—because then he rubs his hands on the front of his pants and says, “Right, so—I’ll be getting something to eat, I guess,” and then he’s pushing off against wall, standing up.

He looks at Ray before he goes, like he’s making sure that it’s okay, and Brad wants to point out that he’s their superior, that he’s the one who calls the shots, and that it’s bullshit to think he’d do anything to purposefully hurt Ray.

When Walt’s gone, when it’s just Brad and Ray and nobody else, Brad walks over and slides down the wall next to Ray, fills up all the space that Walt left behind. Ray just sits there in silence, and so Brad asks, because he needs to know or else he'll go crazy.

“Did you know this was going to happen?” He means them, the two of them, the bond. “A while ago, when we were getting in the Humvee, you were joking around like you knew.”

“Homes,” Ray says, rolling his eyes. “It was a joke. I can’t predict the future; I don’t have a magic crystal ball.” He waves his fingers in front of himself, as if to imply, Mystical shit. Brad nods, and doesn’t want to be talking about this anymore.

“Can’t believe Rudy made you cry like you were back home at some Whiskey Tango eighth grade dance,” he says, changing the subject to something he can handle.

Ray shakes his head, but doesn’t turn to look at Brad. “Rudy wasn’t that bad,” he says. “He knows my face is the money-maker.”

“Then what’s the fuck is up with you?” Brad asks. He doesn’t get it, isn’t good at this, at talking. "Is this you coming down off of the Ripped Fuel?"

Ray lets out a laugh that’s really just more air out of his nose than anything resembling a laugh, and he says, “Fuck, homes, I was crying because I was happy.

And Brad just—“What?” he asks, because he didn’t see that one coming.

“Don’t run away or anything,” Ray says sarcastically, “but you came over to make sure that I was okay, and I just—I felt through the bond that you were worried, and I was happy. Because—I don’t know—because you cared or some shit. I liked that.”

“Of course I fucking cared, Ray,” Brad says, and he says it slowly because Ray’s a dumbfuck if he can go through an entire goddamn invasion and not realize that. “You’re Recon, you’re in my victor, you’re one of my best friends, of course I—”

“Not like that,” Ray interrupts. “Fuck you, homes, not like that and you know it.”

And Brad does know it, but he wishes that wasn’t the case, and so he lies through his teeth, says, “There’s nothing else, Ray.”

And the problem with that—the only fucking problem—is that Ray’s not buying it any more than he is.

"I thought you wanted to get rid of the bond," Brad tries again, and he says it quietly, as if putting any volume behind it could make everything worse. He thought they were good, thought they wanted the same thing.

"No," Ray says, matter of fact.

"Then why did you..." Brad pauses for a minute, tries to make some sense out of it all. If Ray wanted something—wanted the bond, wanted Brad—he'd never have kept his fucking mouth shut unless there was something else, not unless—"You lied. Why the fuck did you lie, Ray?"

There's a pause, like maybe Ray can’t believe that Brad doesn’t already know, and then he says slowly, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world, "Because you wanted to break the bond, Brad, and I want you to get what you want."

"Why?" Brad asks, almost immediately. Nobody's ever wanted that before, not even Tricia, and it scares the fuck out of him that he could do that to Ray, that the bond could do that to Ray.

Ray just smiles a little self-depreciatingly and spreads his hands out in a gesture that says, Fuck if I know, or maybe, Because look at the situation we're in.

“This is fucking everything up,” Brad says.

And Ray just replies, “Yeah, homes. I know.”

 

By the time they get on the plane to go back to Pendleton, Brad’s pretty ready for a hot shower and the opportunity to jack off without sandpapering his balls. He’s been forced to be around Ray near nonstop, trying to ignore the way Ray looks at him when he thinks Brad isn’t watching, and even though they’ve hardly talked since Ray admitted that he wanted the bond, they still had to work together and sleep near each other. They’ve been in each other’s space for far too long, and Brad’s ready to be by himself; it’s what he knows, what he likes.

Walking through the transport plane, Brad picks a seat as far away from second platoon as he can, stows his shit and sits down and debates whether or not he’ll be able to sleep on the flight. Maybe; he hasn’t gotten a full night’s since Kuwait, the first time around.

“Hey, brother,” Rudy says, and Brad looks up. He doesn’t say anything, just sort of quirks an eyebrow in a half-assed hello; Rudy’s not deterred. “This seat open?” he asks.

“Sure,” Brad says with a shrug. He wants to say no, to tell Rudy to sit somewhere else, but just because Brad’s pissed off and acting a bit like a bitch, doesn’t mean he should take it out on Rudy.

Brad rests his head back on the seat and shuts his eyes during takeoff; there are no windows, nothing to look at, anyways. He can’t fall asleep even though he’s tired, and so instead he just sits there, keeps to himself for the first hour and tries to ignore the headache that’s starting to build in his head. It’s been a long time since he had a real headache like this, but no one in Recon carries Advil with them, and Brad wouldn’t waste his time with that shit even if they did. He a badass killing machine; painkillers would be an affront to his warrior spirit.

An hour or so later, Brad sits up and looks around the plane. It’s mostly quiet, because a lot of them are asleep, and so even from where Brad’s sitting, he can hear Ray yelling to someone, “Yeah, fuck you, homes. All I’m saying is it was suspicious, you know, it’s like—he was cremated within twenty-four fucking hours, and that doesn’t seem strange to you?”

Rudy nudges Brad’s arm with his shoulder and smiles. Brad doesn’t smile back because he doesn’t know what the fuck is going on.

“I know you don’t like it, brother,” Rudy says, “but I’m happy for you anyways.”

And Brad—he definitely doesn’t want to be talking about this. He’s never been one to talk about his private life, not even before everything happened with Tricia, and having people know that biology screwed him doesn’t change that.

“I think you guys have great energy together,” Rudy continues, quietly. “He opens you up and you calm him down, and brother, if that’s not what the both of you need, I don’t know what is.”

“This conversation is not happening,” Brad says, and he doesn’t snap, but his tone makes it clear that it’s not up for negotiation. “I get that you and Sheree—”

Rudy laughs, cutting him off, and says, “Sheree and I aren’t bonded. Brother, the only bond we’ve got is a love bond.” He places one hand over his heart like this means anything, like a love bond is actually a thing. “We chose to be together because we make each other better people.”

“Right,” Brad says. “Good luck with that when she bonds with the fucking milkman.”

“This is the way I see it,” Rudy says, like he’s teaching Brad something, like he really believes Brad’s wrong. Brad hopes he didn’t look like that, back with Tricia. It’s undignified. “If I can be more in my body, I can be more in my life. If I was always worrying about bonding—where would that get me? You have to take responsibility for your own life, brother, and a part of that is understanding that there are things you can’t change.”

“When there’s a will, there’s a way,” Brad says. He’s an asshole.

Rudy smiles again, like Brad’s just joking around. He says, “Brad, the world has plans for you and Ray, just like it has plans for me and Sheree. And they’re happening one way or another, so the least you can do is take care of each other until they do.”

“I take care of myself just fine,” Brad points out, because he does, but Rudy doesn’t answer, just smiles to himself like he knows something that Brad doesn’t. And Brad doesn’t mention it, doesn’t ask what the fuck that face is for, because his headache is pounding away and he doesn’t really see the point, anyways.

 

His first night back home in California, Brad doesn’t sleep, and his headache just gets worse. He walks barefoot around his house and takes apart a spare computer hard drive just for something to do, but everything’s tidy and put away, and there’s fuck all on tv, and so Brad gets bored fast. He gives in, heads back to his bedroom to put on jeans and boots.

His garage is mostly empty. He’s never been one for holding onto things he doesn’t need, and so the shelves are almost bare, save for his hiking gear and a box of books. His surfboard’s in a small shed out back, and Brad’ll get to that later, but right now there’s only one thing he needs, only one thing that has his attention: his bike.

Brad peels the dust cover off of it, and there it is: his Yamaha r1, in all its glory. He runs his fingers along its side, straddles it, and walks it back out of the garage and onto the driveway. He’s missed this; he feels more excited than he has in a long time.

It’s dark out, the entire neighborhood asleep, and so Brad takes it easy, goes slow and quiet down his street and through the residential area. The second he’s out of there, though, the second he’s in a more open area, Brad takes off, his Yamaha loud underneath his body, the wind whipping at his exposed skin.

This—Brad loves this, the danger and the adrenaline, the solitude and the speed of it all. It’s not like surfing or skydiving, and definitely not like being in the Corps. In combat, he’s at the mercy of so many factors: weather, terrain, enemy, time. But out here on his bike, Brad’s isolated from all of those things. One little slip and he could wind up dead, but when he’s on his bike, he’s not so sure it’s not worth it.

Brad speeds down the interstate faster than he knows he should, clocking an easy 112 miles per hour. He’s had more speeding tickets than he’d care to admit, but even if there are cops out, Brad doesn’t care, not tonight. It’s worth it, for this kind of freedom.

He can feel it through the bond, Ray’s reaction to the adrenaline Brad’s feeling, and although he can’t put a name to it, he pictures Ray in the front of their Humvee, smiling and rolling his eyes. Brad sends back a bit of his own amusement, a quirk of his lips, because he’s feeling good, feeling free, feeling untouchable, and he’s got nothing around him to hold him back or box him in.

Ray’s reaction to that is a surprised one, a hopeful one, and it snaps Brad back to reality, to the realization of what’s actually going on. He scowls to himself and ignores Ray, just completely shuts him out, and he speeds up on his bike, pushes it faster in an impossible attempt to get away. It’s bullshit, he knows, nothing he can get away from, but it makes him feel better, anyway.

The headache, when it comes, catches him by surprise; it starts in the center of his forehead and then radiates outward, pain shooting along the top of his skull to the back of his neck. Brad lets out a gasp of pain like some undignified pussy before gritting his teeth, his vision blanking out before being replaced with pinpricks of light, red and blue and white.

And suddenly he realizes—it’s really fucking dangerous, speeding on a motorcycle when he can’t fucking see, when his head feels like it’s being split in two—when Ray’s head feels like it’s being split in two.

Brad’s vision blinks back into place just in time for him to see that the road curves ahead. He can’t slam on the breaks, not without getting thrown off, but odds are he won’t be able to make the turn smoothly, either, not at this speed.

He makes the turn anyways, because he’s got no other choice, and he almost loses control of the bike as it corners. He pushes down on the handlebars and leans off the seat to the right, trying to keep his Yamaha as upright as possible. He has no clue how fast he’s going at this point, but he speeds up a little through the turn anyways, just to keep the bike from tipping.

And then just like that, Brad’s zipping down the road again, no problem, like none of it ever happened. His heart is racing in his chest and he can feel the adrenaline coursing through his veins, and since no one else is there to see it, Brad pulls over to the shoulder, takes off his helmet and just breathes for a minute, his forehead resting on the handlebars.

Ray’s freaking out, worried as fuck. Brad’s cell goes off in his pocket three times in a row, but he ignores it as his head starts throbbing faintly again, threatening.

 

The headache stays with him for the entire day, forcing him to stay at home and avoid that surf, and that night, Brad barely sleeps, instead just lies in bed with the covers pulled up over his head, as if blocking out the light makes his headache any more bearable. It doesn’t, and Brad’s never felt anything like this, the incessant pain of his body rebelling against him, and it never lessens, not even for a second, just hours and hours of a steady, throbbing pain.

Sucking it up and accepting that this may make him look like a complete pussy, Brad reaches a hand out and blindly feels around the top of his end table for his phone. When he finally finds it, he stares at the screen through squinted eyes as he scrolls through his contacts to call Doc Bryan.

“Yeah?” Doc says when he picks up, in the kind of voice that implies that he’s busy doing something else more important than talking to Brad. Brad doesn’t care.

“Hey, Doc,” he grits out, a spike of pain shooting along the top of his skull. “You still at Pendleton?”

“‘Til Tuesday,” Tim confirms. “You need something?”

“If I swung by, could you hook me up with some painkillers?”

“Shit,” the doc says, like he knows that if Brad’s even asking, it’s got to be bad. “What happened?”

“My head,” Brad says. “I feel like I cracked it open on a rock.”

There’s a minute where Tim doesn’t say anything, and that’s how Brad knows that when he does talk, it won’t be good. Tim doesn’t hold back, not with people he’s allowed to be forthright with.

“Brad,” Tim says finally. “Has Ray been having these headaches, too?”

“I don’t know,” Brad lies, a little more bite to it than there probably should be. “I haven’t talked to him.”

“Right,” Doc says. “Well, painkillers aren’t gonna do shit for the kind of headaches that you’re having. But, on the plus side, completing the bond should get rid of them, no problem, and connect the two of you more thoroughly.”

“Completing the bond?” Brad repeats slowly, skeptical.

Doc Bryan huffs out a laugh, half annoyed, and says, “Come on, Brad. You’re not a fucking moron, you know how bonding works.”

And the thing is, Brad does. He’s been not thinking about it for as long as possible, but bonds and fucking go hand in hand, and right now, his body is aching for Ray’s touch like his life was some weak pussy Elizabethan romance novel.

“I’m not interested in that,” Brad says. He and Ray have reached a happy medium; Ray wants him to get what he wants, and what he wants is to not have to deal with any of this. He doesn’t want to do anything that would solidify the bond and make it easier to feel Ray’s emotions, even if it’ll get rid of his headaches.

“Okay,” Tim says, like either he doesn’t believe Brad or just doesn’t give a shit either way.

“Right,” Brad says, because he forgot that all of a sudden, just because the bond is in the picture, people have lost the ability to comprehend that Brad doesn’t want to have sex with Ray fucking Person. “Never mind. It’s not that bad; I’ll be fine.”

Brad hangs up and tosses his phone back onto his end table before covering his head with the comforter again. The pain is still there, pounding steadily, and Brad is so tired, so fucking tired of this shit. He wants to go back to not needing anyone, to not wanting anyone, and Brad doesn’t want Ray, not really, but it fucking feels like he does.

He tries to take his mind off of things by making a mental list of the stuff he needs to do, grocery shopping and visiting his parents and changing the oil on his truck. It works decently well when it comes to dealing with the pain, but then he falls asleep and dreams of Ray again, and that’s not what Brad wants at all.

They’re in bed in the dream, in Brad’s bed, and the sheets are all messed up, falling halfway off the mattress. Ray’s on his knees in front of Brad, bent over with his face mashed into the pillows, and Brad’s got one hand splayed out on the small of Ray’s back, three fingers of his other hand buried in Ray’s ass.

“Shit, Brad,” Ray says, his voice strangled. “Quit messing around and fuck me already.” He pushes his hips back to meet Brad’s fingers, and his knees slip farther apart; Brad hauls him back up with an arm looped around his bare waist.

“Shut up, Ray,” Brad says, focusing intently on the way his fingers look, disappearing into Ray’s body, on the way Ray’s hips jerk and his breath catches as Brad crooks his fingers, teasing.

“Fuck you, homes,” Ray says, a smile in his voice. “You love it when I talk.”

“Yeah,” Brad says, “I do.” He licks a short strip up Ray’s spine. Ray’s cock is hard, red, and his thighs are trembling, and Brad thinks, Soon.

 

Brad wakes up in the morning after only a couple uneasy hours under and purposely doesn’t think about it. Instead, he pads barefoot across his room to the bathroom, shucking his briefs as he goes, and brushes his teeth while the shower water heats up. Brad looks in the mirror, toothbrush hanging out of his mouth, and he looks exactly the fucking same.

The water is hot when he steps into the tub, steadily beating down on his shoulders and the back of his neck, and it turns his skin a raw pink in no time. He wonders how much fucking longer this is going to take, getting rid of the bond; he doesn’t know what else he can do, and it pisses him off that this thing is beating him.

His head still hurts; it’s a fucking nightmare.

Brad only hears the banging on his front door when he shuts the water off, and his plan is to just ignore it, except for how it doesn’t stop.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Brad says to himself, and, wrapping a towel around his waist, he goes to answer the door.

“Howdy, homes,” Ray says, because of course it’s fucking Ray. He’s wearing his Elvis glasses and a cowboy hat, a shit-eating grin stretched across his face, and he takes Brad’s breath away.

“What the fuck is that on your head?” Brad asks. It’s the first thing that comes to mind that he’ll actually allow himself to say, one hand of his still firmly grasping the towel at his hips.

“Sheer beauty,” Ray says. “I won it off of some Charlie Company retard in poker last night.”

Brad nods in response but doesn’t say anything at first, because the pain in his head has dulled, has been put on the back burner, like Ray’s the fucking cure. He can feel Ray’s happiness, a little, his excitement, his nervousness, and that says so much that Ray’s not putting into words that it makes Brad feel uneasy, not knowing what Ray knows he’s feeling.

“I thought you’d headed home,” he finally says.

“What, to Nevada?” Ray asks. “No way, homes. If you think this shit we’re dealing with now is bad, putting me across the fucking country from you while we still haven’t figured this bond stuff out would be fucking moronic.”

Brad sighs, because everything comes back to that, and asks tersely, “What are you doing here, Ray?”

“Well, I figured that since you’re nice and cushy at home, and I’m still stuck in barracks, the least you could do is let me crash on your couch ‘til my headache goes away.” Then, after a short pause, “You gonna let me in or what?”

“We’re supposed to be breaking this fucking bond, and we can’t do that if you’re here,” Brad reminds him, stepping back anyway because it’s Ray. “Take off that fucking hat.”

“Now Bradley, where are your manners?” Ray asks, stepping inside, but he listens to Brad anyway, knocks his hat back off his head so it’s hanging between his shoulder blades by a thin cord, hangs his sunglasses on the neck of his t-shirt. It’s just a plain grey shirt, but it fits snugger than Ray’s PT gear, and it’s weird, seeing Ray in clothing that he picked out himself.

He looks so fucking tired, now that his sunglasses are off, like he’s hardly slept since Baghdad. His eyes flick over Brad’s chest quick, real quick, like he thinks Brad won’t notice, or maybe like he can’t help it, and it makes Brad want to wrap his fingers tight around Ray’s wrist. Looking at Ray just serves to remind Brad of how much it feels like he wants him.

“I’m going to go get dressed,” Brad says, suddenly and inexplicably embarrassed to be standing around in nothing but a towel.

“Yeah, alright,” Ray says, and Brad can hear him flop down on the couch as he walks away.

Back in his bedroom, Brad pulls on a clean pair of briefs and snags a random shirt out of his closet. It’s hard because Brad’s fucking pissed that Ray can’t do what he’s supposed to for once, can’t stay away for long enough to even attempt breaking the bond, but on the other hand, it’s nice to be able to think straight and not have those headaches.

“Hey, homes, where’s your shag carpet?” Ray yells out to him from the living room.

“That was one fucking time,” Brad yells back because it’s easy, because joking is more familiar than being serious, and Ray just laughs. It’s not even the most embarrassing story that Brad had shared, the one about him liking to rake his parents’ shag carpet as a kid, but it’s the one Ray latched onto hardest, and it helps ease the situation. “Better to rake shag rugs than eat dirt, you pimple-faced disgrace to mankind.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Ray says. “Everyone’s a critic that had a wet dream last night.”

And Brad freezes at that, halfway into his shorts, because if Ray knows—of course Ray knows, with this fucking bond, but he doesn’t want Ray to think that Brad wants him, that Brad might be interested in keeping him around. Brad’s not, and it makes him so fucking mad that Ray knows, and it’s so fucking undignified—

“The fuck you talking about?” Brad asks through the door, his voice flat.

“Shit. Nothing, homes,” Ray says, and he doesn’t say anything else after that.

Once Brad’s all dressed, he throws on some flip-flops and heads out to meet Ray. He doesn’t know what he’s going to do to keep Ray entertained, doesn’t even know if he’s supposed to, or what’s expected of him. He wants to go out on his bike, wants to go surfing. Just wants to go.

“Want to grab a beer?” he asks instead out of some sort of misplaced sense of duty. It’s late morning in California, but it’s five o’clock somewhere, and Brad needs a drink.

“Okay.” Ray shrugs like he did back in Iraq, coming down off of Ripped Fuel, and Brad pretends like there’s nothing wrong with that.

 

Brad goes to bed early that night, tossing sheets and a pillow at Ray as he goes, and it seems like he wakes up the next morning just minutes after he finally manages to fall asleep. He’s still ticked off about Ray inviting himself over, and so he decides to just roll out of bed and head to the beach. The surf’s good enough, and it’s early enough that it shouldn’t be that crowded, and so Brad grabs his wetsuit, slips on his flip-flops, and if he lets the door slam behind him—fuck it, he doesn’t care. Ray knows how he feels, knows that he’s not goddamn welcome, but Ray doesn’t give a fuck and came over anyways; Brad’ll be as loud as he wants.

He makes his way down the street and towards the beach, and when he hits the sand, he kicks off his flip-flops and walks the rest of the way barefoot. He’s fucking missed this, surfing; it’s the one habit of his that his parents actually support, and the one that he gets to do the least. It’s a crying fucking shame.

At the water’s edge, with ankle busters breaking over his feet, Brad waxes his board and tries not to think of the fucking mess that his life has become. This is what he likes: being outside, alone, not having to worry about entertaining other people or doing what they want, or being what they expect him to be. Only now Ray’s fucked it all up—or maybe Brad has, by not realizing that he and Ray had potential to begin with—and now he’s expected to spend his life being something that he’s not. Brad’s not the doting, caring lover type, and he’s never going to be.

When he zips his wetsuit all the way up, Brad paddles out into the cold water and jumps in line for a wave. It’s early on a weekday morning, and so the only people out besides him are a few young guys, early twenties, Ray’s age. They look like a bunch of fucking morons, with their hair constantly in their eyes and some gay-ass puka shells around their necks, but they’re alright enough and leave Brad alone except for to say, “Hey, bro, next one’s yours.” It could be worse.

The next set of waves that comes is shit, but Brad takes one anyways because a shitty wave means he has to work for it, means it could go horribly wrong, but if he’s lucky—if he plays his cards right—Brad will fucking conquer it and make it rideable.

He paddles forward, feels the muscles in his back and his chest work as the sun warms his skin, and blinks the sea spray out of his eyes. At the top of the wave, right before he drops, he thinks of his Recon training, of swimming that fucking pool in his cammies, of being underwater for so long that it felt like his lungs would burst. He can feel the adrenaline start to kick in, and that’s good; that’s the whole point.

Brad drops in and makes his bottom turn. The water’s choppy and he almost gets knocked off his board, but in the end he steadies himself enough to ride it out, to dip his fingertips into the face of the wave as it carries him closer and closer to shore. At the end of the ride, when his board sinks into the water and Brad gets off his feet, he looks at the last dregs of the wave and thinks, I made that wave my bitch.

He paddles back out, gets in line to do it all over again.

An hour and twenty minutes later, Brad’s finally feeling better enough about things that he’s willing to make the next wave his last. Surfing does that for him, helps him compartmentalize things in his head until it’s all manageable, and as he paddles back to the beach, he thinks that maybe he and Ray will be okay if they just ignore the bond and go about life as friends, like they were trying to last night, living as brothers in arms and nothing else. But then he looks out and sees Ray sitting in the sand, barefoot and wearing jeans and a white tee, and Brad’s breath catches in his throat and his heart starts hammering in his chest, making him feel good, the way he does when he’s jacking off.

Brad has to push back the sudden image of him threading his fingers through the short hair on Ray’s head, and just like that, Brad knows that nothing will be okay between them, that this bond is the worst fucking thing that could have happened to them, because he wants Ray so badly, even though he knows that none of what he’s feeling is real, and even though he knows it’ll turn him into someone he doesn’t recognize.

Once he reaches the shore, Brad picks up his board and removes the strap from his ankle with his free hand. Ray watches him the whole time, watches him with his hands buried deep in his pockets, and Brad has to look away because Ray won’t.

He walks up along the sand to where Ray is, and when he gets there, he sets his board down, undoes the zipper of his wetsuit and takes it off halfway, leaving the skin of his chest and shoulders bare. Brad can almost hear Ray swallow, can definitely see the way his Adam’s apple moves in his throat, and Brad immediately regrets it.

“Sleep alright?” Brad asks, sitting down next to him.

“Yeah, I guess,” Ray says, and Brad can tell it’s bullshit. He hasn’t been able to sleep since they bonded and started avoiding each other, not really, and Doc’s told him enough about bonds for him to know that this is normal, that Ray will be feeling it too, until they both accept the bond or find a way to break it.

“Good,” Brad says, and then there’s a silence stretched between them a million miles wide. They’ve never had this before, awkwardness and tension, and it knocks Brad sideways how much he hates it. He doesn’t want this bond; he wants his sister-fucking, Whiskey Tango best friend back.

“I can’t believe you’re gonna make me say this,” Ray says quietly, almost as if to himself. “You’re such a fucking pussy. I mean, seriously, this is some next level shit right here—”

“Ray,” Brad says, but whether it’s to cut him off or to get him back on track, Brad doesn’t know. Ray turns his head and looks at him for a second, and Brad is hit with the over-whelming desire to place his palm flat in between Ray’s two shoulder blades. Instead, he clenches his fists tight around the empty sleeves of his wetsuit.

“You’re no Rudy,” Ray says, starting off like he’s joking, “but as far as emotionally retarded Vikings go, you’re the only one I want to fuck me. And I trust you more than I trust anyone else in the world, homes; after that whole clusterfuck in Iraq, you’ve got to know that much.”

“So?” Brad says. It sounds like Ray’s trying to convince him of something, and he doesn’t want to be convinced. He doesn’t want to be bonded or have a soul mate or any of that limp-wristed, pussy bullshit. “You trusted Walt. You trusted the LT.”

Ray makes a face like he’s not going to dignify that with a response and instead says, “Look, homes. That dumb bitch screwed you over pretty hard and so you’re wary, I get that. But I’m not her; I’m not gonna pull a runner on you, and I’m not gonna get with your best friend because I am your best friend, and even if I’m not, I’m definitely not getting with Poke. I just want you to be happy.”

“That is seriously gay,” Brad says, because this is all too much and it’s making him uncomfortable. And, if he was being honest, he doesn’t know if anyone can make him happy anymore. “I’m talking competitive figure skating, sequined spandex, dancing to Shania Twain gay.

“Right,” Ray says, nodding his head like that makes sense, not tearing his eyes away from the water, the waves. “That’s the gay part, and not when I said that I wanted your dick up my ass.”

Brad falls quiet for a while after that, because of part of him wants that, too, wants to have sex with Ray and learn the way he tastes and how easily he bruises and the kinds of noises he makes. But he’s aware that the only part of him that wants it is the bonded part, and the part of him that gets a say says otherwise.

And just—he’s suddenly so mad at Ray, because he’s working so hard to fight this bond and Ray just doesn’t give a shit, just willingly handed over his free will for some fucked up biological anomaly that says they’re meant for each other. And so Brad snaps a bit, says to Ray, “You really think that a buck-tooth, Whiskey Tango, cousin-fucking hick like yourself can make me happy?”

“Fuck yeah,” Ray says. “If you’d let me.”

It leaves Brad grasping at straws, and so he just asks, “Don’t you want to be with someone you love?”

“Shit, homes,” Ray says, and he says it in a way that Brad’s never heard before, not in all the years they’ve known each other, or after all the shit they’ve been through. He sounds like he feels bad for Brad, and he says, “Haven’t you listened to a single thing I’ve said?”

And Brad—what can he say to that? He can’t say anything to that, and so he just doesn’t respond, doesn’t say or do anything besides look out at the ocean. His body starts to list over towards Ray of its own accord, and he has to be extra vigilant just to keep upright, to keep to himself.

“Look,” Ray says. “You wanna grab something to eat? Maybe barbeque some steaks up and get real drunk or something?”

And Brad doesn’t, not really, but it’s something they would’ve done before, and he wants that normalcy, and so he says, “Only so long as you don’t get Natty Lite, you dirty hick fuck.”

Ray puts his hand over his heart and says, “Bradley, you wound me,” and that’s that. Decided.

 

They don’t end up making steaks, because Ray doesn’t really know what the fuck to do with one and refuses to let Brad cook in his own house, saying he owes Brad one for letting him crash, and although Ray says he makes a mean pork chop and grilled peaches, he vetoes the idea because “I would never force you to go against your big, dumb religion, Brad.”

“I’m atheist; I eat whatever the fuck I want,” Brad reminds him, but Ray is having none of that, and so they settle for making loaded nachos. Ray puts a shit ton bacon on them, and Brad doesn’t comment because he actually wants to fucking eat.

They drink, too, trash beer for Ray and IPA for Brad, and it’s not too bad, once Brad starts feeling it go to his head. Ray’s still Ray, even if Brad hates him for it, and Brad drinks more than he should because of it.

“No, seriously,” Ray’s saying. Brad missed the first half because his head feels waterlogged, and there’s some terrible Home Improvement re-run on tv that keeps snagging his attention. “The fucking Food Pyramid? Homes, it’s clearly a conspiracy by the government to get us to buy produce and support American agriculture. I’ve never—fucking never—eaten a carrot and thought, Yep, glad I ate that. I’m done eating now. Shit, no! I finish that carrot, and then I go out and eat my bodyweight in fried chicken.”

“Ray,” Brad says lazily, “it is scientifically proven that too much fried chicken will make you fat, disgusting, and dead.”

“But isn’t it worth it?” Ray asks.

“No.”

“Jury’s still out, then,” Ray says with a shrug. “Hey, homes, you remember that time we had Pizza Hut in Kuwait?”

“Fucking rip-off,” Brad says, slouching further down on the couch. He’s tired, on the verge of falling asleep, and a part of him wonders if Ray would mind if Brad just didn’t move. Ray probably wouldn’t mind; he actually wants Brad. It should make Brad feel good, to be wanted, but right now, it mostly just makes him feel indifferent.

Brad needs to stop drinking before he does something and fucks it all up even more, and Ray must realize that, because he nudges Brad in the shoulder, and all Brad can feel is how sad he is, even though he’s smiling.

“Come on, homes,” Ray says, hoisting Brad up from the couch. “Let’s get you to bed.”

Brad’s so much bigger and taller than Ray that they stumble at first, but then Ray fixes Brad’s arm over his shoulder and they manage to make it to the bedroom in one piece. He throws Brad down on the bed and starts tugging off Brad’s shoes, and all Brad can do is stare at the ceiling and think about is how differently things would go if it wasn’t Ray, or maybe if it was Ray, but they weren’t bonded and were just doing it because they actually wanted to. Brad would fuck him, make him beg for it, if things were different.

Ray undoes the button and tugs off Brad’s jeans. Brad’s half hard, and almost lazily so—fuck, this bond has had him on edge for ages, messing with his head and his cock with no regard to him or his warrior spirit—but Ray just ignores it, yanks Brad’s jeans down and off, leaving Brad in just his tee and briefs.

Ray doesn’t bother trying to get the blankets free from under Brad’s body. Instead, he unfolds the knit blanket at the foot of the bed and tosses it over him.

“Night, homes,” Ray says, and he makes his way over to the door, flicks off the light. Brad can only see his silhouette, standing in the doorway, when he pauses and asks, “Would it actually be that bad? Being bonded to me?”

He stands there for what seems like the longest time, waiting for Brad to respond, and Brad thinks about saying nothing, about just rolling over and going to sleep, and even though that’s something the Iceman would have had no problems doing in Iraq, he feels like that’s a douche move to do here.

“Goodnight, Ray,” he says instead.

Ray pats the side of the doorway twice. “Yeah,” he says, and then he’s gone.

 

The next morning, Brad wakes up earlier than he’d like, feeling somewhere between complete shit and no hangover. He’s hungry, though, which is a good sign, and so he rolls out of bed in just his briefs and heads to the kitchen for breakfast.

He notices Ray when he’s crossing the living room; Ray’s asleep, face-down on the couch, his dark boxer briefs tugged down a few inches from tossing and turning, exposing half of his bare ass. For a minute, Brad scratches his stomach and just stands there, staring at Ray in a sleepy haze, and it takes him longer than usual to push aside the fondness in his chest than usual. He doesn’t bother feeling angry about it.

In the kitchen, Brad eats an apple and drinks a cup of coffee while standing over the sink. It looks nice outside, and he’s slightly lost in his thoughts. Last night, he reached the conclusion that he’d fuck Ray if only the bond wasn’t there, and he was drunk when he thought it, but that doesn’t make it any less true. He notices, in a detached sort of manner, that maybe that’s just the bond doing its job, but he can’t really bring himself to care as much as he would’ve before; it’s too draining, the headaches and the sleeplessness and not seeing Ray, and Brad is fucking exhausted from it.

Throwing on shorts and a hooded sweatshirt, Brad lets Ray sleep and goes to run some errands. He grabs the keys to his truck and the pair of aviators that he left on the small table near the door, and locks up behind himself.

Brad drives with the windows down. The early summer breeze feels good on his face, smells like the ocean and feels like home. There’s almost nobody out on the road, just Brad in his truck and a few early morning joggers, and one lone, beat-up station wagon heading in the opposite direction, surfboards stacked on the roof. Besides that, it’s quiet, and Brad drives without thinking much of anything.

His first stop is a hardware store. It’s a Home Depot, this giant fucking thing, when all Brad needs is some heavy sand paper, maybe a fiber glass repair kit, if they have one. One of his extra boards has a giant ding on the lip, and there’s no point in not fixing it. Ray doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, and Brad’s not going to stop paddling out just because Ray doesn’t have a board, or doesn’t know how to surf. He’s not even really doing it for Ray, but at least this way if Ray wants to use it, or if Brad busts the one he normally uses, it’ll be there.

Ray’s still asleep by the time Ray gets back in his car and heads to the bank, that much the bond can tell him. Ray’ll probably sleep until one, if Brad doesn’t wake him, and so at least that will give Brad the time he needs to get some shit done.

Brad hits every light on the way to the bank, which is slightly unbelievable, but he doesn’t let it frustrate him. He feels good, calm and relaxed, and he’s not in a rush, has nowhere he needs to be. He thinks maybe he’ll run into the grocery store, just to grab stuff for an omelet, or French toast, but he’s not sure. He’s got shit at home to eat.

The bank is mostly empty when he gets there, which is nice, just one young woman ahead of him in line. She’s beautiful, objectively so, wearing a fitted sundress with her long hair pulled back, and she smiles politely at him when they make eye contact. He nods back, and stands behind her, waiting to deposit a check. He thinks maybe he should have gone to the drive-through teller.

The bell above the door dings when it’s opened again, a minute later. Brad turns instinctively to assess the situation, but it’s just another woman around the LT’s age, and so Brad turns back around.

“Heather?” the woman who just entered says, and Heather—the other woman, the one in front of Brad—looks up at the sound of her name.

“Oh my god!” she says, and they reach around Brad to hug each other. Brad just barely contains his eye roll, and steps as far aside as he can to give them room. “This is crazy, I haven’t seen you in ages! How are you?”

There’s more touching between friends than an impromptu bank meeting calls for, Brad thinks, but what does he fucking know? Brad doesn’t know shit about this kind of thing, about women, and so he tries to just ignore as much of it as possible.

Then the second woman smiles at Heather and says, “So? I can’t believe you didn’t tell me. How far along are you?”

“What?” Heather says, but her hand flies to her stomach. Brad almost can’t believe it, the eye that this woman’s got, because Brad would’ve never guessed that someone as slim and in that fitted of a dress was pregnant. Honestly, he’s impressed. And then, as if Heather realizes she’s been caught, she asks, “How can you tell? We haven’t told anyone yet!”

And that—there’s something in that, something in the way she says, How can you tell?—that hits a nerve with Brad. He feels unsettled all of a sudden, jittery, and he doesn’t understand. What is it? What could possibly have that effect on—

“How can you tell?” Ray asks. It’s dark out and his eyes are wide, and the two of them only just avoided near death at the bridge. Doc is there, his Kevlar off, revealing his bandana, and he’s listing the basic signs of bonding as Brad sits there, stunned, because he had no clue that this was a possibility, not a single fucking—

No, Brad thinks. That doesn’t make sense. Ray was just as surprised as he was, just as thrown to learn that they’d bonded, and he’d never do that to Brad, never keep something this big from him, never go behind his back and betray his trust like that. Only—

It makes sense. The longer Brad stands there, the angrier he gets, because Ray—Ray had to have known they had potential; he accepted this bond so easily, wants Brad around now because he knew it was a possibility from the minute they met in Afghanistan, and Brad feels like such a fucking idiot for trusting someone like that again. And this morning—fuck, this morning he looked at Ray and didn’t fight some of the things in his head, and he thought about fucking Ray last night, and of course—of course—that was the fucking bond making him think that. Brad would never accept a bond in his right mind, never leave himself open for other people because other people always just fuck him over, and now that he realizes how close he had come to giving in, he wants to beat the shit out of Ray, wants to never see him again. He feels like a fucking idiot.

Brad leaves the line before his turn to speak to a teller. The bank is stifling, and he has to get out of there before everything boils over. His phone rings in his pocket, and he ignores it, lets it go to voicemail, and when his phone buzzes in notification, he ignores that, too. Ray’s worried, real worried, and Brad can feel that worry as if it were pacing back and forth in his chest.

He finally gives in and checks his phone where he gets a text message.

You okay? Ray asks.

Brad knows Ray can feel how angry he is when he sends back, Go fuck yourself, and he hopes that gets the message across.

When he gets back to his truck, Brad tosses his phone in the backseat and turns up the volume on the radio so he doesn’t have to deal with Person calling him repeatedly.

Brad drives around aimlessly for the next few hours, going over everything in his head in the hopes that maybe he’s reading things wrong.

He isn’t, and he doesn’t bother going home.

 

Maybe Brad’s getting a bit too predictable, or maybe it’s just how well Ray knows him—how well the bond knows him—but Ray searches him out and finds him at the bar about four and a half hours later than when he should’ve been back home.

“Yeah, thanks for the heads up, homes,” Ray says, rapping his knuckles on the bar top as he slides onto a stool. He orders a beer, and then says, “No need to worry about Ray-Ray so long as you’re having a good time, you hugely inconsiderate retard. I thought something happened, and I’d have to bail your ass out of jail.”

Brad takes a pull on his beer and then asks, “Is this the part where you tell me that you’ve known about our potential since Afghanistan, or does that part come later?”

“Okay,” Ray says slowly, like he’s talking to a child. “What is this about?”

“You knew,” Brad says again, not a question this time, and Ray just scoffs, rolls his eyes.

“Of course I fucking knew, homes,” he says, and Brad can tell that he’s nervous, can feel it just as easily as if he was feeling it himself. “Unlike you, I’m not a complete idiot.”

And Brad doesn’t know what to say to that, so he doesn’t say anything. He thinks he can feel the heat from Ray’s arm, even though Ray’s a barstool away, and he wants to reach out, to touch Ray’s hand on the bar top, but Brad never did things like that with Tricia, knows he only wants to with Ray because of the bond, and so he clenches his fingers tight around his beer and just grits his teeth. He’s angry, so angry.

He wonders how much of what he’s feeling Ray can feel, too.

“Everything makes so much fucking sense now,” Brad says. “Why you’re so okay with all this fake soul mate, meant-to-be bullshit. You’ve been expecting this since the day we met.”

“Don’t—Brad,” Ray says, and he sounds tired. “Why are you fighting this?”

Brad shakes his head, says, “There’s nothing to fight.” Ray laughs at that one, a sharp laugh that cuts Brad up in all the wrong ways.

“Never pegged you for a liar,” he says, and Brad snaps.

Me?” he says. “I’m the liar? How long did you know we had—and how long were you just going to act like we didn’t? Because that seems like a whole fucking year’s worth of lying, if you ask me.”

Ray’s foot bounces up and down on the barstool and he raises his hands, shrugs just the tiniest bit. “I shouldn’t have had to tell you. You should have known the second we met,” he says.

“Yeah, but I didn’t,” Brad tells him. “You knew I didn’t.” And then he presses, because he has to know, has to understand how Ray could do this to him. “Why didn’t you say a single goddamn word, Ray?”

And he thinks, for a second, that maybe Ray didn’t bring it up because he didn’t want this, either. He knows it’s not true, knows that Ray is fucked up and wants Brad because of that, but for a second he entertains the idea that maybe their bond is biology gone haywire, a mistake in their genetics that brought them together. Brad could understand that; if their roles were reversed, Brad doesn’t think he’d have said anything, either.

“Because,” Ray says, and he’s not looking at Brad. Instead, he’s staring at the bar top and peeling the label from his beer bottle. “At first, I kept my mouth shut because you were the Iceman and I thought you just didn’t want to mention it at work, and then once I got to know you, because no matter how much I wanted more, you’re my best friend and I knew how you’d handle it, and that you’d cut me out. You can deal with getting shot at, no problem, but the second someone starts to love you, you go all Captain America on us.”

And Brad’s heart is hammering in his chest now, or maybe he’s feeling Ray’s hammering in his, because Ray—that fucking idiot really thinks he loves Brad. Brad thought that he was just talking on the beach, making a statement, but it turns out that Ray really does think that, like he’s some zit-faced teenage girl, lusting after the captain of the football team. Brad doesn’t want to be having this conversation, doesn’t want to be sitting here with Ray at all, but Brad doesn’t half-ass anything, and he needs Ray to understand.

“You don’t want me,” Brad tells him. “The bond is just making you think that you do.”

But Ray just shakes his head, says, “What the fuck does it matter if the bond is making me feel like this? It’s not going to go away; I’ll be feeling like this for the rest of my life, homes.”

“You deserve a choice, Ray,” Brad says. “Even a Whiskey Tango fuck like you deserves to be able to choose who they want to be with.”

Ray shakes his head, runs his hands through his hair, and Brad can tell he’s getting frustrated, getting angry.

“Why can’t you understand that I don’t want a choice?” Ray asks. “I don’t give a fuck why I want to be with you; I just do, because I know that being with you would make me happy, and that we’d have some really fucking great sex. And if you’d get your head out of your ass and stop being such a giant pussy, you’d realize that, too.” Ray presses the heels of his palms into his eyes. “Jesus Christ, you’re pissing me off.”

“Yeah, welcome to the fucking club,” Brad says. “I’m not changing my mind and going with this, just because you think I should.”

“You’re a colossal fucking idiot. You’re sitting here, playing the martyr card, but really you don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.” Ray stands up, tosses a few bucks down onto the bar. “Wake up, homes; this is happening, and you can’t stop it just by being an asshole.”

And then Ray leaves, heads out the door, and there’s something in Brad’s chest that almost makes it hard for him to breathe, his entire body is screaming out to go after him.

He tries telling himself that those are Ray’s feelings, but it’s all bullshit. He knows.

 

Brad wakes up the next morning slightly hungover again, but feeling better than he probably should, which is a nice surprise. He showers in water that’s hotter than he normally likes, quietly eats some cereal standing shirtless on the back deck, and he realizes that for the first time in a long time, he has no clue what he’s doing. Brad hasn’t so much as entertained the idea of being bonded since Tricia, and hardly even did it then, and now that breaking the bond seems like less and less a viable option, Brad doesn’t know what to do, what changes in his life to expect. Where to go from here, now that he’s so angry with Ray.

Loath that he is to admit it, he could use some fucking advice.

In a fit of degradingly uncharacteristic neediness, Brad hops on his bike and rides fifteen over the speed limit to Poke’s. It’s fucking embarrassing that he’s even showing up there in the first place, but Brad’s stuck between a rock and a hard place, and he doesn’t know what else to do, not really. Avoiding Ray hasn’t worked, hasn’t broken the bond any, and getting within inches of absolutely hating Ray didn’t do a thing, either. Ray’s still staying at his house, still sleeping on the couch like maybe he expects that to change Brad’s mind or something. It won’t, because Brad refuses to play bitch to this bond, but he’s having harder and harder a time keeping Ray out of his head, feels himself wanting Ray more and more as time goes on, even though he knows intellectually that’s not him doing the wanting, and even though he’s still reeling from finding out about Ray.

Brad rings the doorbell, and he feels like such a pussy for it.

“Iceman,” Poke says when he answers his door. “What’re you doing here?”

Brad makes a face, like it’s painful to have to say this, and he tells Poke, “I need to talk to someone.”

Poke just laughs. “Fuck, dog, you need to talk? Yeah, okay. Come on in, I’d like to see you struggle in the attempt. Spend every day with you for months on end, and you still can’t let me just—”

“Anyone else home?” Brad asks, and he steps inside, kicks his shoes off into the pile just inside the door.

“Nah,” Poke says. “Dance practice. My little girl is busy as shit, dog.”

“Yet another reason not to procreate,” Brad reminds him. “Reproduce, and then your schedule is at the mercy of someone who can’t even fucking tell time on an analog clock.”

“We don’t need to tell time by the white master’s clock,” Poke says, and his face is serious even though Brad thinks Poke’s fucking with him on this one.

“Sure,” Brad says. “Go back to sundials and hourglasses, and I’ll talk to you in a week.”

“Pssh,” Poke says, like he knows he’s being called out. There’s a hint of a smile creeping up on his face. “The fuck you know about this shit?”

Brad shakes his head in response, because that’s Poke, alright, and then the two of them eat some chips and dip while they watch whatever game happens to be on tv. They shoot the shit and eventually he tells Poke what happened, about how it turns out that Ray knew all along and just didn’t say anything because maybe he was selfish, because maybe he just wanted to be bonded and didn’t care that it might have to be to Brad.

Brad’s expecting Poke’s trademarked fury on his behalf, but Poke doesn’t see it the same way.

“Look, it sucks that he didn’t tell you, dog, I’m not gonna lie to you about that one,” Poke says. “Ray is one fucked up little white boy, but it’s not like he knew your potential would change, and bonds happen for a reason; he’s got your best interests at heart, and he’ll make you happy in the long run.” Poke pauses in his train of thought, takes a long pull of his beer. “And besides, bonded sex is the best sex, they weren’t making that shit up. One good fuck, and those headaches will be gone.

“Are you listening to yourself?” Brad asks. “You’re suggesting that I’d want my nine and a half inches anywhere that’s hick’s ass.”

“Nine and a half inches?” Poke laughs. “Dog, you’re deluding yourself.”

“No, deluding myself would be saying that I was interested in Person,” Brad counters, because Ray’s insanely competent, but he’s also just insane; Ray may be his best friend, but that’s it, that’s all he’ll ever be.

Poke’s silent for a second, like he’s trying to figure out how to respond to that one, and then he asks, “I ever tell you how I met my wife?”

Brad shakes his head. Poke talks about her a lot, but mostly just recent things, stories with their daughter in them.

“I was at a grocery store,” Poke says. “The fucking produce section. I was just cutting through the store to get to the beer in the back, and she was standing by the tomatoes, and I saw her and I just knew. Never looked at another woman again, dog; never even though of one. I was just sold.”

“While a play-by-play of your romantic escapades sounds quite gripping,” Brad says dryly, “I can hardly say anything similar happened to me and Ray.”

“Really?” Poke says, kind of like he was calling Brad a liar.

“Yes, really,” Brad says back, because the way he and Ray met—it wasn’t anything like that.

They were in Afghanistan, for starters, and not a fucking grocery store, and Brad’s radios were shot. After working on them for almost two hours and still nothing, Brad took a break, went to say hi to another company that had just pulled in, and when he came back, there was some skinny fuck hanging out the driver’s side of his victor.

Thinking it was one of his corporals, Brad said, “Colt, what the fuck are you doing?”

And whoever the fuck was in his Humvee shouted back, “Nah, homes, Colt’s out sucking cock for a vanilla pound cake, and I—just fixed his radios.” The kid looked over his shoulder for a second and then back to the radios, before snapping immediately back to Brad, his eyes slightly wide. And Brad couldn’t believe—

This fucking child fixed his radios in the ten minutes he was gone? Brad was impressed; Brad was really, really impressed, and his heart sort of flopped in his chest just thinking about the sheer level of competency that his victor would have if he could get this kid transferred over, if he could get this kid to be his driver, his RTO.

“Ray Person,” Ray had said, a goofy grin across his face. And when Brad didn’t respond right away, he took off, saying, “And fuck, homes, but whoever’s been touching your radios is a grade-A retard. I mean, it took me fucking two minutes to fix, and what the fuck do I know about radios? I don’t know shit about radios, homes, and I still know more than every other retard out here, and that’s pretty fucking—”

“My specialty’s computers,” Brad had interrupted, and he didn’t know why he felt the need to defend himself to this twenty-year-old Lance Corporal that he could probably snap in half over his knee.

Ray made a quick and sloppy oops face and said, “You did that to the radios? Shit, homes, don’t quit your day job.”

”I was trying to fix them,” Brad explained.

Ray was still smiling like an idiot, and the thing was, people didn’t talk to Brad like that. They would later, in Iraq when Ray was there to do it first, but not then, and Brad was taken aback. He had to admit, he liked the challenge this Whiskey Tango motor-mouth posed, how smart he was even though he didn’t look like he would be, and how he spoke to Brad like that even though Brad was his direct superior. Brad wanted to punch him in the fucking mouth.

And Brad was going to say something, was going to verbally whip Ray’s hick ass, only then someone yelled out from behind him, “Hey yo, Iceman! Lieutenant’s looking for you!”

“Yeah, alright,” Brad yelled, still looking at Ray, and Ray let out a low whistle.

“You’re the Iceman?” he asked, fucking finally showing at least a little bit of respect. And then, most likely realizing what he said earlier, he added, “So I’ll just expect to be dead by morning?”

“Probably for the best,” Brad responded, and he turned to walk away to find the Lieutenant.

“What if I took back that retard comment?” Ray yelled at his back, and Brad was glad that Ray couldn’t see his face, because he was having trouble holding back a small smile.

“Nope,” Brad responded, telling himself not to spare Ray another glance, and that was that.

Only now, standing with Poke in Poke’s backyard, Brad remembers how he asked his lieutenant about Ray, asked if and how and transfer was possible. Brad likes people who know their shit, who won’t get him killed, and for the longest time, that’s all he thought it was with Ray, just a desire to make Ray his RTO. Only as it turns out, all of that was just the bond’s desire to make Ray his, and Brad feels a little fucked sideways when he realizes that.

“We met in Afghanistan,” Brad says, because he feels like Poke’s waiting for something. “That Whiskey Tango fuck up has been giving me shit since day one.”

“Yeah,” Poke says, a bit of laughter in his voice. “I guess any sense of normalcy is too much to ask for when Person’s involved.”

“You don’t know the half of it,” Brad says, and he supposes that no one else really does.

 

When Brad gets home, a headache is starting to creep up on him, and Ray’s left him a note on the kitchen table, written on the back of a receipt for off-brand Astroglide and jolly ranchers. Crashing at Walt’s tonight for hick bonding time, it says. Don’t miss me too much, and Brad stands there, holding the scrap of paper in the middle of the kitchen, and he feels so keyed up that he doesn’t know what to do. It’s fucking domestic, getting notes from Ray about where he’s at, the kind of bullshit that his parents would do, and yet Brad feels like he just cut a sharp turn going over a hundred on his bike. He likes that Ray thought of him, even though they’re fighting.

And just like that—at the thought of having a home with Ray, after reading a handful of words scribbled on the back of a crumpled receipt—Brad’s cock starts filling in his jeans, like that idea’s enough to get him going. He doesn’t get it; it doesn’t make sense to him, what’s got him so turned on. Maybe it’s because of the talk with Poke, how now Brad’s all caught up thinking about Ray and how they met and the time they spent together, but—a note from Ray? That’s the kind of shit that does it for him now that he’s saddled with this fucking bond? Brad feels like he’s about to go over the deep end, analyzing this, but he recognizes that and forces himself to remain calm. It’s Iceman shit, what he’s doing, and he blocks it all out, everything that he doesn’t want to focus on, and instead just does what he normally would do: he calls an escort service. He’s horny and he wants to fuck someone, but he’s sure as hell not going to let this bond control his decision of who.

It’s not technically legal, what he’s doing—not legal at all, in any way, not in the Communist State of California—but Brad’s never had problems and he doesn’t see why he should now. So he throws himself down onto one of the kitchen chairs and palms himself through his jeans as he calls up and talks to this woman named Michelle, who’s been sorting him out during his leave for years and years, for all of them since Tricia.

“The usual?” Michelle asks. She’s nice, a few years older than most of her girls, and if Brad was ever actually interested in someone for something other than sex, he thinks he’d be interested in someone like her. “Thin, dark hair?”

“Yeah,” Brad says, only then he’s hit with a memory of Ray sprawled out shirtless on the hood of the Humvee, skinny and tattooed and wearing those fucking Elvis glasses as he talks to Walt about bacne, and so Brad says, “No, actually—blonde, if you have someone. Curvy.”

“Sure thing,” Michelle says. “Variety is the spice of life, as they say,” and Brad spends the next thirty minutes thinking about how he’s essentially been fucking female versions of Ray for years, and he never even realized it. He’s not accepting of the idea at all in his head, but his cock doesn’t seem to mind—seems quite eager at the thought of doing some of those things to Ray, of wrapping his fingers tight around Ray’s wrists as he fucks Ray with slow, deep thrusts, or pulling Ray’s hips back and pushing Ray’s head down into the mattress until his cock is pressed as deep as it can go, his fingers pressing hard, dimpling the skin of Ray’s ass—and Brad can’t stop thinking about it.

His heart is racing so hard in his chest that he just needs to do this, to fuck Ray out of his system by fucking a beautiful blonde woman who looks nothing like him.

While he waits, Brad walks through his bedroom and makes sure everything’s in order, gets some cash out from his top drawer, and downs three Advil. His head is pounding, slow and steady, and even though the Advil will do jack shit, he still takes them in the hopes that maybe this time they’ll help.

His doorbell rings not even five minutes later, and Brad goes to get the door, introduces himself to the woman there. She’s curvy, alright—big tits, nice ass—with curled, blonde hair halfway down her back, and she’s sexy, Brad knows she is, but looking at her, he feels nothing except for the pounding in his head.

“I’m Carey,” she says, and her voice is low, husky.

Brad closes the door behind her, and with one hand on her waist and the other cupping her breast, he leans in and kisses her on the mouth. The pain that flares up in his head when he does that—when he touches her—is incredible, worse than being shot, worse than crashing his bike. It blossoms in his forehead, shoots up along his skull and towards the back of his neck, and it makes him feel like he can barely move. He jerks back.

“Shit,” he says under his breath, and he bunches his fingers in the side of her dress for a second, before taking her by the hand and leading her back into the bedroom. He thinks that maybe he shouldn’t be doing this, only he’s so determined to that he doesn’t stop walking.

Brad stumbles for a second, his head hurts so much. Why does his head hurt this goddamn much? He just wants to break the bond, just wants to get his rocks off, just wants—and goddamn Ray

Carey’s looking at him, like she’s expecting a response.

“What?” he says.

“The price; it’s for the night,” she repeats, and Brad just nods, shrugs her comment away.

“Sure,” he says. “Alright. That’s fine.”

Brad leans in again, kisses her again up against the wall of his bedroom. The pain flares up in his head, shooting down his spine this time as his hands fumble to push the thin straps of her dress over her shoulders, as he tugs the dress down until he can see the lace of her bra.

He stops for a second, leans his hands on either side of her head against the wall, and his vision cuts out—just goes, everything all black—and his knees buckle. The pain—fuck, this fucking bond—all he wants is to get his dick wet, all he wants is for things to go back to how they were, but it hurts—goddamn, it hurts—and Brad can hardly breathe as he moves to cup her tits underneath of her bra, and—

“Are you okay?” Carey asks. Her voice is soft and Brad hates her for it, because he’s not fucking okay, not even close.

“I’m fine,” he says shortly, and he pulls back, tugs his own shirt off by the back of the collar. He pushes up against Carey again, slides his hand between her legs and up under her dress, palming her thigh, and his head is about to split in fucking two now, and his heart rate is through the roof. It won’t calm down. He’s about to have a heart attack, Brad thinks; that’s the only think it can be. He’s going to die. He can’t breathe, and his vision is coming in spots, and this is worse than SERE training, worse than anything he’s ever lived through, and Brad thinks that maybe he won’t live through this, that maybe this is all there is for him, and he’ll never dive again or surf again, never see his parents again, never call Ray a Whiskey Tango, bucked-tooth fuck up again, never see Ray again at all, and Ray—what’ll that do to Ray—to the bond—when Brad dies?

His chest constricts as his body falls apart, and it all hurts so fucking much that Brad stumbles backwards, falls on the floor and leans against the bed.

“I’m sorry,” he says, and his voice cracks in the middle. He blinks hard once, twice, trying to clear the pinpricks of light from his eyes. Everything hurts so fucking much that it makes his hands shake. “I can’t do this, I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Carey says, and she looks like she wants to touch Brad, on his knee or maybe his shoulder. Brad’s glad that she doesn’t. He watches her pull her dress back up, and when his head just pounds harder, her looks away, leans his head back and stares at the stucco ceiling to see if that will help.

“It’s not you,” he says, and this time his voice is steady, level, even though his legs feel like jelly, and even though his head is splitting in two and he can barely move.

“Oh, hon,” Carey says, and Brad wants to say, Don’t call me hon. I’m a cold-blooded warrior, a badass Recon Marine. I am the kind of man who gets paid to kill and likes it, but he doesn’t, just directs her to her money and asks her to leave.

Brad’s not sure how long he sits there for, how long he sits cross-legged, hunched over with his head on the floor, trying to stop hurting, trying to tell himself that he doesn’t wish Ray was here with him. It’s everywhere, his whole body, and Brad never signed up for this shit, doesn’t want this shit, just wants to stop hurting, wants his heart to stop racing, son of a bitch, why won’t it fucking stop

There’s a banging at his front door.

“Brad,” Ray’s shouting from the other side, “Jesus fucking Christ, Brad. Homes, open the door, please, fucking—Brad.

He sounds like Brad feels—wrecked—and all of a sudden, Brad feels even worse, because he thought about Ray, but he didn’t think about Ray, about what he’d feel when Brad fucked Carey, about how the bond would effect him during it, and all of a sudden Brad’s back in Sergeant mode, back to thinking about his men, about how he’d take a bullet for any one of them—for Ray—and he struggles to his feet, walks on wobbly legs to the front door, one hand out with his fingers trailing along the wall to steady himself.

It takes him two, three tries to get the lock on the door, but when he does, when he gets the door open, Ray’s there, his arm around Walt’s shoulders to keep upright. He’s crying, tears and snot running down his face, and even though he looks like such a fucking mess, Brad almost wants to smile, because it’s still Ray.

“Shit, Person,” he says, trying to sound alright, and Ray lets go of Walt, slumps forward against Brad and runs a flat palm down Brad’s bare back again and again and again.

“You dumb motherfucker,” Ray says, his face pressed into Brad’s neck. “You stupid fucking retard, what did you do?”

Brad doesn’t say anything, won’t say anything, because the second Ray’s hands are on him, his headache starts to disappear, the pain in his body subsides, and Brad can breathe again. Brad likes breathing, likes the feel of Ray’s body against his, and he knows that last part is the bond talking, but right now it feels so good, feels so fucking good to have Ray and to not hurt, that Brad can’t even feel bad for thinking it.

“Why would you do that?” Ray asks, his breathing ragged, and maybe Brad doesn’t need to say anything; maybe Ray already knows. “You gigantic fucking idiot, don’t you know anything?”

Ray’s lips move against the side of Brad’s neck when he talks, and Brad feels good, feels better than he’s felt in years even though he’s exhausted, the residual pain in his body seeping out of his pores.

Brad pulls Ray closer even though he knows that he’ll regret it in the morning, because it makes him feel good now and he refuses to go back to that paralyzing pain, and then he slips a hand under the hem of Ray’s ratty t-shirt, places it flat on the small of Ray’s back and pulls him in closer.

He wants to say something, maybe, I didn’t know, or, I didn’t think, or even just, I’m sorry, but he’s not the kind of person who says those sorts of things, and so instead he says nothing, just walks with Ray back to his bedroom. It’s exactly like how it was with Carey, except for how it’s nothing like that at all, the two of them going to Brad’s room to just collapse in bed and try to bounce back from all the ways Brad fucked up.

The two of them fall sideways on top of the comforter, Brad’s feet still dangling off the bed, and all Brad’s really thinking about is the feel of Ray’s hand still constantly dragging its way down Brad’s spine, again and again. It feels nice, cools down his hot skin, and without even thinking, he moves to push Ray’s shirt up to his armpits, exposing his chest and all his tattoos. Ray gets the idea, pulls away just long enough to get his shirt off before lying back down, collapsing half on top of Brad and half on the bed.

They lie there like that, the two of them, for a long time. Brad doesn’t know how long, but they breathe together and Brad’s heartbeat goes back to normal with the skin on skin contact, and all the pain and anxiety fades away into just a bad memory. Even then, Brad can’t bring himself to move, or to ask Ray to.

Brad wants to explain it to Ray, feels like maybe he owes it to him, to tell him about how Sergeant Colbert is different from Brad Colbert, about how Sergeant Colbert is the Iceman but Brad Colbert is an emotionally stunted loner who doesn’t understand a lot of things, and doesn’t care to.

Instead, he says, “I fuck up sometimes.”

And Ray just says, “Homes, look who you’re talking to.”

Brad doesn’t know how to respond to that, and so he doesn’t, just lies there as Ray falls asleep and as Walt leaves them a glass of water on the end table before he heads home.

 

Brad wakes up sometime in the late morning, judging by the light streaming in through his blinds, with Ray pulled into his chest and their legs tangled together underneath the sheets. He lies there for a while before he really comes to, and just relaxes, because he hasn’t slept like that in ages, not since before Iraq, and he feels good. He feels really good.

But then Ray shifts in his sleep, his fingertips skimming Brad’s forearm, and Brad realizes where he is, realizes that he’s fucking cuddling with Ray like some weak pussy fuck, and he couldn’t be out of that bed faster. He’s careful about it, careful not to wake Ray, but when Brad’s finally free of Ray’s limbs and standing on the carpet next to the bed, Ray rolls over and makes a noise in the back of his throat like he’s about to wake up.

Brad holds his breath. Ray snuffles and then rolls back over, the bed sheets slipping lower down his bare waist, and Brad tears his eyes away, because this bond doesn’t fucking control him, and looking at Ray’s skin would be rollerblading, knee-pad-wearing, fanny-pack-toting gay.

Brad walks silently through his bedroom, stepping over Ray’s shoes to find his own, and once he’s dressed, he heads out the door, taking only his wallet and his bike keys with him. He leaves his phone where it is, charging on the end table, and he supposes that he should feel bad, but mostly he just wants to get the fuck out of there.

Outside, Brad throws on his helmet and silently backs his bike down the driveway. The engine roars to life when Brad’s out on the street, and he heads out, goes a hundred and ten down the highway because it makes him feel better to be in control of something. And maybe that’s the problem with all of this: Brad’s not in control of any of it.

Heading back home doesn’t exactly seem like a practical option at the moment, and so Brad drops in on his mom, because he promised her that he would. It’s new for him, this whole avoiding shit thing, and it makes him feel like a pussy bitch, but on the whole, it’s no worse than anything else he’s been feeling since the ambush on the bridge, and so Brad tries his best to ignore it.

Inside, his mom sits him down and pours him a glass of iced tea, and even though he’s a grown goddamn man, she puts cookies out on the table because she knows he can’t say no. It’s all disgustingly suburban, the kind of life Brad used to tell him self that he’d never have on pain of death, but now he’s bonded and this is the kind of bullshit he’ll probably have to deal with when he’s not deployed.

“This is such a surprise,” his mom says, sitting down at the kitchen table across from him. Her smile is wide, and for all the shit Brad’s put her through, he’s glad she’s happy. “I didn’t think I’d be seeing you for a few more days.”

“Yeah, I’ve been busy,” Brad says, and he tries to figure out how to say it, how to say what he needs to, but he’s not used to this and so the words just sit at the back of his throat.

“Yeah?” his mom asks, like she maybe knows. “Someone special finally in your life?” Brad doesn’t answer, and so she continues, “Well, I think that’s great, Bradley. You needed someone, especially after everything that happened, and I know you like to take your time and do things your own way, but I do worry, you know—”

“I got bonded,” Brad interrupts, just to stop her, and it’s not like she won’t find out sooner or later. “To someone in my platoon.”

There’s a second of stunned silence and then his mother cheers, genuinely shocked, and throws her hands up a little bit in the air. Brad knows that he is a fucking warrior who doesn’t need anything or anyone, but apparently that doesn’t stop his mom from worrying about him being alone for the rest of his life.

“When do I get to meet him?” she asks. “You should have brought him over!”

“No, it’s—” Brad doesn’t fumble with his words, but he does cut himself off and start again. “I don’t want to be bonded.”

“Yes, you do,” she says, without even skipping a beat. “You wouldn’t be bonded otherwise.”

That one fucks Brad sideways, a bit. He didn’t see that coming, and couldn’t disagree with it more.

“You haven’t met him,” Brad says, trying to convince her. “He’s a loud, psychotic hick from Missouri who doesn’t know how to calm down and shut up for five minutes.”

“And don’t you think you might need that, a little bit?” she asks.

Brad ignores her because although she means well, she doesn’t know shit, and instead asks her, “Can I stay here for a few days?”

 

Brad stays for exactly that: a few days. Three whole days of lying on the couch and sleeping in his childhood bedroom and going on endless runs through the neighborhood in the old PT gear that he had left behind. He has no clue if people have—if Ray has—tried to get in touch with him, because his cellphone is presumably still sitting on his end table, and as much as it pains him to admit it, he’s avoided checking his email. He does reformat his dad’s shitty desktop, though, and take apart their laptop just so he can put it back together again.

He tries to ignore the tug in his navel that feels like he should be somewhere else, tries to convince himself that the feeling in his chest is just heartburn and nothing else. He doesn’t need Ray, will never need Ray, and although the headaches start creeping back in, and although Brad wants to be rid of them more than he wants a lot of things, he tells himself that it doesn’t matter.

Unfortunately, Brad’s a hardened, badass warrior-killer who can’t stay put for very long, and so he grows some sac and heads home out of boredom. He takes his bike slow this time, in no rush to get there and have Ray bitch him out, and he hopes Ray didn’t trash his place in his absence. Brad’s not the kind of person to do that, not even if the positions were reversed, but Ray’s always been a bit of a wild card, and granted a lot of that was the Ripped Fuel, the instant coffee crystals, but a lot of that was just Ray, too, and his own personal brand of scrotum-faced, buck-toothed, zit-exploding stupidity.

So Brad’s expecting the worst when he gets home, maybe pizza boxes everywhere and dirty socks on the floor or something, but when Brad opens his front door, everything’s exactly as it was three days ago.

“Hello?” Brad calls out when he walks in. “Person?”

Nobody answers and so Brad assumes that he’s alone, tosses his bike keys in the bowl by the door and heads to the living room to turn on the news.

Ray’s there, asleep on his couch with one arm slung over his eyes, and for a second Brad feels like he’s back in Iraq, Ray asleep on the hood of their Humvee as they wait for orders to move out. It was such a shithole, too much heat and too much sand and not enough fucking food, but in retrospect, Brad loved it. He’s ready to go back.

Leaving Ray where he is, Brad heads into the kitchen and throws on a pot of coffee. He eats a clementine while it brews, and just as he’s pouring himself a mug, he hears Ray sit up, his sleep-thick voice calling out, “Homes? S’at you?”

“Yeah,” Brad says, and he reaches up into the cabinets for another mug, pours some for Ray and adds a shit ton of milk and sugar.

Ray flops back down on the couch just as Brad turns back around. He lets out a long breath and says, “I kinda thought you took your scared pussy-ass out of here until I left.”

“Just because this sad excuse for a bond told you that I was avoiding you, doesn’t mean that that’s true,” Brad says, blatantly lying as he hands Ray his mug. “Judging by the fact that I’m now tied to you for the rest of my natural born life, I think we can agree that the bond is flawed.”

Ray scoffs, says, “No, the bond didn’t think you skipped out on me, you colossal fucking retard, I did.”

And Brad doesn’t know what to say to that, because Ray so easily separates the bond from everything else, and so he just offers, “I was visiting my parents.”

Ray must find something in that funny, because he smiles real wide and asks, “And how are the esteemed Mr. and Mrs. Colbert?”

“They’re fine,” Brad says. And then, and he doesn’t know why he says it—maybe because he feels like he owes Ray one, or because none of this is getting any better or any easier, he doesn’t know—he says, “I was unable to convince my mother that meeting a Whiskey Tango, incest-loving, bona fide hick-retard such as yourself was a bad idea.”

“Fuckin’ A, homes,” Ray says. “You’re just jealous that I’ll steal your title as Most Loved Adopted Son. ‘Cause I fucking will, Brad, I am going to woo that woman until she wishes she was single and daring enough to handle this fine piece of Ray-Ray, but fear not, because I—”

Brad reaches over, grabs the back of Ray’s neck and shakes him like he would a puppy; Ray, for his part, stops talking and just kind of goes limp, lets Brad do whatever he wants, and that scares the fuck out of Brad, he’s got to admit. He’s seen a lot of fucked up shit in his day, people bleeding out and dying and starving to death, but being able to do this to Ray—to calm him with just a touch—this takes the cake.

“Everything’s changed now, because of this,” Brad says quietly, and the words are out of his mouth before he even realizes he’s thinking them.

“Nothing’s fucking changed, homes,” Ray responds, his chin still down and his shoulders relaxed. “You could have done that to me the day you met me, you were just too much of a dumbfuck to realize it back then.”

“I had no reason to realize it,” Brad says, because he’s a Recon Marine, and a goddamn good one at that; if it was noticeable, he would have noticed it.

“I know, homes,” Ray says, and Brad’s surprised he doesn’t take the opening to argue about it. Maybe he’s just as tired of everything as Brad is.

They sit there for a minute, Ray on the couch and Brad on the edge of the coffee table, both of them drinking coffee in the middle of the day. Ray’s got a pillow crease running down his cheek, and his hair is flattened on one side; it makes him look like even more of a social reject than he normally does.

“I’ve got the new James Bond on dvd,” Brad offers. He’s tired of feeling like he has to walk on eggshells in his own house, like this bond means he can’t be friends with Ray anymore. “Some beers still in the fridge.”

“Which one? Die Another Day?” Ray asks. “Yeah, okay, put it on, even though it is some seriously gay shit, homes. Like, if Pierce Brosnan was in First Recon, he’d be Encino Man, for sure: not as bad as Captain America, but sure as fuck no Nate Fick. The only thing worse than a Brosnan Bond film is that shitty one with George Lazenby, fucking—what was it called?”

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” Brad says, putting the dvd in the player.

“Right, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” Ray repeats, and he gets up to head into the kitchen to grab two bottles, still talking his entire walk there and back. “That shit is the worst, homes. You can even tell by the title. Like, who wants to watch some bullshit movie with the Queen in the title, if you’re not even fucking from there? I don’t give a shit about the Queen, and after seeing that movie, I don’t give a shit about George Lazenby.”

“Yeah, it was pretty fucking bad,” Brad agrees.

“They should’ve kept Roald Dahl. You know he wrote the screenplay for You Only Live Twice?”

“No shit?” Brad asks, and he pushes Ray’s legs off the couch to make room for himself. “I liked James and the Giant Peach.”

“Yeah, but James and the Giant Peach didn’t have Sean Connery, so. Anyways, dude, stop talking, I’m trying to watch the movie,” Ray says.

Brad stops talking, and this—this is okay. Brad can do this much.

 

It's nice, how good Brad feels the next morning about how he and Ray can still be friends. Their movie night went pretty well, just the two of them shooting the shit and discussing Bond girls' tits, and if they happened to have sat closer together on the couch than they normally would've, Brad can't complain; they weren't touching, weren't projecting their feelings, none of that. It felt almost normal.

Brad starts his morning off early, and goes for a run around the neighborhood for about an hour, just to stay in shape and clear his head. By the time he gets back, Ray's still asleep, most of his body dangling dangerously over the edge of the couch. Brad leaves him where he is and goes to take a shower; he's got plans to meet Walt for coffee, because Walt's got questions about maybe going career, and Brad finds himself wanting to help, to be able to fill that role of advisor for him.

On his way out the door, Brad writes Ray a note, Gone to meet Walt, you lazy, Whiskey Tango deadbeat, and then leaves it on the coffee table next to Ray's phone.

Brad takes his truck and tries to stick to only ten over the speed limit, and so by the time he gets to the Starbucks, Walt's already there, sitting with a drink at a table by the window.

"Which one are you," Brad asks him as he walks past and heads to the register, "the homeless guy trying to scam a key to the restroom, or the high school girl getting fat off of iced lattes?"

Walt flicks him off good naturedly, and waits for Brad to get back before saying, "Man, it's been like a week, but feels like it's been a year."

"It feels like I'm not even on libo yet," Brad says, taking the lid off his coffee to add a packet of sweetener. "I've got Ray practically living on my couch like a fucking loafer." Brad takes a second, looks at Walt, and then says, "Thought you were heading home to see Laura?"

"Nah," Walt says, and he shakes his head like he's a little embarrassed. "I mean, I was, but—you know. She understands that you gotta be there for your family, sometimes."

"Oh," Brad says. "You have relatives around here?"

"No," Walt says. He reaches out to grab Brad's empty Splenda package and fold it into a paper airplane, and that's when Brad realizes that Walt's talking about him and Ray. It makes Brad uncomfortable, not because he doesn't feel the same, but because it is only now being brought to his attention that he does, and so he doesn't mention it because he doesn't know how to.

"The Corps must have done a number on you if you're thinking about never leaving," Brad says instead.

Walt just shrugs. "I don't know what else I'd do. And I mean, I'm not even all that good at this, but still."

"Who the fuck said that?" Brad asks, his eyes snapping to Walt's, and if it was someone that Brad knows, or even someone he doesn't, he's going to—

"No one," Walt says, laughing a little like what Brad's thinking is written all over his face. "And I'm not looking for—just, you know. The driver in the blue car." He says it with the kind of forced nonchalance that one feels compelled to use over time, even though none of it is felt.

"Hey," Brad says, because if there's anything he wants Walt to remember, it's this: "It was one mistake. Yes, we were trying something new with the smoke grenade, but you did what we've always done, what you were trained to do, and there's nothing wrong with that. One fucking mistake does not make you a shit Marine. Besides, maybe that guy was just going to run us over, or light us up; maybe you saved our asses."

He feels like Nate Fick for it, especially when Walt says what Brad would've, "Maybe he was just a civilian."

"You can't think like that," Brad tells him. Then, "You'd be good, if you went career." It's nothing less than the truth.

Walt smiles like he's grateful, and says, "I don't know what I'd have done without you and Ray. Trombley, even."

"Fucking Trombley." Brad shakes his head. What a complete psycho.

A comfortable silence falls over them, then, and Brad uses the time to look at Walt. Brad forgets that he's just a kid, sometimes, and now he's hit with just how much Walt has grown and matured in a few short months.

"I just want you to be happy," Walt says quietly, and Brad knows exactly who he means by you, how he means it in plural. Brad purposefully misinterprets it.

"I am happy."

"No, you're not," Walt says, sure. "It's like you couldn't get what you wanted before, and so now you won't let yourself get it this time around."

We're not fucking talking about this, Brad wants to say, or, Don't concern yourself with shit that doesn't concern you. The only reason he doesn't snap is because it Walt, and because Walt's coming from a place where he genuinely thinks bonding will only make Brad's life better. So Brad explains, "I'm not going to let something as small as a fucking bond tell me that suddenly I want Person."

"But you've always wanted Ray," Walt says patiently, only slightly confused. "I mean, you were always looking at him, and listening to him talk. I thought that's why you wanted him in your Humvee."

"No," Brad tells him. "It wasn't like that."

"Oh," Walt says, like that thought hadn't occurred to him. The other way around hadn't occurred to Brad, and now that he's faced with it, he's not so sure Walt's wrong. He thinks back to meeting Ray, to how he felt back then, and he still feels exactly the same, even now, even with the bond; he still thinks Ray's a highly competent, highly motivated, Whiskey Tango idiot. And if the bond hasn't changed that, then maybe everything else—the way Brad feels when Ray walks around without a shirt, or how he sometimes thinks about touching Ray's bare skin—maybe all that's been around since they met, too, and Brad's just been too caught up in everything else to notice it.

"Anyways," Brad says, and Walt laughs a little.

"Yeah, anyways," he says.

Brad leaves Walt and the coffee shop at noon, but it's hours before he stops aimlessly driving around and actually makes it home.

 

That night, Brad wakes up around three and he can’t breathe. He struggles, takes in giant, heaving breaths, feels the adrenaline rush through his body, and without even thinking, his hand shoots out for his gas mask. His fingers close around nothing but air, and that’s when Brad finally looks around, realizes where he is.

Sitting up, Brad rests his elbows on his crossed legs and leans forward to rub his eyes. His heart is racing, almost like he was back at the bridge, or in Baqubah, and he takes in a deep breath through his mouth, holds it in for a second before letting it out through his nose. Just like they taught him during SERE, only here, he’s in his own bed, in his own house.

Once Brad gets his breathing under control, he lies back down and shuts his eyes. It’s strange, he thinks, that he woke up like that; he can’t remember having a nightmare, and hasn’t had one for years. It fucks with him a little bit, keeps him up, because he doesn’t like not knowing shit about himself.

It’s as he’s lying there, staring at the stucco ceiling, that it happens again: out of nowhere, his heart rate is through the roof, and the muscles in his body contract. He feels, for one brief moment in time, absolutely fucking terrified. And then it hits him: Ray.

Brad throws back his sheets and pads silently across the room and down the hallway. It’s dark, and even though Brad’s eyes are used to it, he can still barely see, his feet walking the path that he’s already so familiar with. His heart’s still pounding, and it scares the shit out of him that it’s pounding because of something Ray’s feeling.

In the living room, Brad hears Ray tossing and turning, his breaths coming out short and ragged, a few soft sounds slipping out of his throat. Brad flips on a light, but it doesn’t wake him; he waits for a second to see if Ray stops, but Ray doesn’t, just starts tossing harder, a look of pain on his face as his brow furrows and he grits his teeth.

Brad decides to wake him up, to save him some fucking dignity over having a pussy-bitch nightmare; it’s what he’d want, if he was the one who was having it.

“Hey,” he says in a quiet voice, “Ray, hey, wake up.” Ray thrashes some more and so Brad reaches out to touch Ray’s shoulder, says again, “Ray.”

The second Brad’s fingertips brush Ray’s skin, Ray’s eyes snap open. His whole body jolts as he sits halfway up and looks around, panicked. When he finally spots Brad, he lets out a deep breath and smiles just a little, like he’s relieved, like he thought Brad wouldn’t be there.

“Homes,” he says softly, and his voice sounds so different from how Brad usually hears it that Brad’s taken aback. And then Ray reaches out with one hand—slow enough that Brad could move away, but not purposefully so—and places it on the side of Brad’s neck, rubbing his thumb in small circles on the skin behind Brad’s ear.

Brad stills, and he feels his eyelids slip shut for a second before he forces them open. It’s hard, though, because in that minute, he feels so close to Ray that it becomes hard to tell himself that he doesn’t give a fuck and that this bond doesn’t affect him. He imagines that he can feel Ray’s pulse beating through his fingertips; time feels like it’s passing impossibly slow.

Half a second or hours and hours later, Ray leans in to kiss Brad on his lips, and Brad lets him. It’s chaste and just barely open-mouthed, Ray’s bottom lip caught between the two of Brad’s, but it sends such a shock through Brad’s body that he almost forgets how to breathe.

Brad pulls back; Ray’s looking at him, completely calm. Brad wants to stay, to keep Ray close, except for how he knows that he doesn’t, not really. That’s not him, thinking that.

“Get some sleep, Ray,” Brad says quietly, and Ray doesn’t say anything, just smiles small at him as he shifts around on the couch. Brad waits until Ray shuts his eyes before he leaves.

Back in the bedroom, Brad slides under the covers and thinks about what just happened. He’s oddly calm, not mad or anxious or anything, and he feels like the Iceman again: invincible. It was a good kiss, even though it was barely anything at all, and it makes him wonder what it would be like, to actually be with Ray, to fuck him and wake up to him the next morning. It would be nice, Brad thinks, as nice as anything else, because Ray’s one of the few people that he more than tolerates. He really might be attracted to Ray, to his jawline and the curve of his spine and the way his tattoos are even dumber than Brad’s own. The only problem is that with this bond, he’ll never know if he really is attracted to Ray, or if it’s just the bond that is.

It fucks everything up, shit like this, and Brad falls asleep alone.

 

Brad wakes up to Ray banging on his closed bedroom door.

“Hey, homes,” he says, opening the door a second later. “Can I eat this?” He shakes a container of rolled oats. “By the way, your kitchen is the saddest fucking thing I’ve ever seen, and I saw a lot of sad shit during OIF. You need to get PopTarts—the strawberry kind with the icing, or else you’re a waste of space—which, you think I’d be sick of them, after getting them all the fucking time in our MREs, but you know, I guess this just proves the superiority of the toaster pastry over that lemon pound—”

“Ray,” Brad says slowly, not bothering to open his eyes. “You’ve been eating your way through my kitchen since you got here.”

“Yeah,” Ray says, like he means, And…?

“You never fucking once asked me. So just eat the fucking rolled oats.”

“Well, I didn’t know I needed to, homes!” Ray says.

Ray,” Brad snaps, finally sitting up enough to cut Ray a glare. Ray’s not wearing a shirt, and Brad can’t stop himself from running his eyes over Ray’s chest, his tattoos, his collar bones, and the way the light hair on his stomach trails off somewhere underneath his waistband. Brad’s heart rate picks up a bit, barely noticeable even to himself, but Ray notices it through the bond if the way he licks his lips and swallows is any indication.

“Yeah,” Ray says, like he’s not sure how he’s supposed to react, his eyes fixed on Brad’s face. “Sorry, homes,” and then after a short pause, he leaves, heads back towards the kitchen without shutting the bedroom door behind him.

Brad flops back down on the bed and turns onto his side, and tries to slip back into sleep. In the kitchen, Ray accidentally pulls out an entire cabinet of pots in search of the perfect saucepan, and they clatter all across the tile as Ray says to himself, “Shit, shit, shit.” Brad grabs the extra pillow off of his bed and mashes it over his head in order to cancel out the noise, but it doesn’t work, and as he hears Ray shuffle around in the kitchen, all he can think of are the stars on Ray’s chest and how much he wants to touch them. And the worst part—the part that pisses Brad off the most—is that now that he’s bonded, he thinks about having that fucking dirty, Whiskey Tango retard barefoot in his kitchen, and he finds that he likes the idea.

“Goddamn it,” Brad says to the ceiling. “Fucking undignified.”

He rolls out of bed and picks up yesterday’s shirt from the floor, throwing it on as he walks out of his room.

“Look what the cat dragged in,” Ray says, as soon as he hears Brad shuffling down the hall. He’s at the stove, and he doesn’t even turn around.

“You’re so fucking loud that I don’t know how you ever actually expected to be able to do recon,” Brad says, sitting down at the kitchen table. “You better have made me some.”

“Yeah fucking right, homes,” Ray says. “Do I look like a housewife to you? My tits aren’t big enough for that, and your cock definitely isn’t big enough for that.”

Brad wants to but ultimately doesn’t rise to the taunt about his cock, and if Ray seems to find anything abnormal in that, he doesn’t say a word. What Ray does do is sit down at the kitchen table with two bowls of cinnamon oatmeal and sliced bananas, and props his feet up on one of the empty chairs as he slides a bowl across to Brad and settles in to eat.

So,” Ray says, turning their comfortable silence into a loaded one. Another beat goes by and then, “I’m not re-upping.”

“Okay,” Brad says. That’s it, just okay, because he saw it coming from miles away, could have told Ray he wasn’t re-upping way before Ray even knew it himself, just based on the way he talked. Still doesn’t make it any easier to hear. He doesn’t want to have to deal with breaking in a new RTO.

“Yeah,” Ray says. “So like, homes, I know you’d rather have your fingernails torn out than talk about this, but we kinda gotta figure out what the fuck we’re going to do when you deploy. You know, about the fact that we’re soul mates and shit.”

And everything just—sort of becomes quiet for a minute, after that, as if Brad was hearing things with his ears still ringing from a bomb blast, or the sound of Walt’s MK-19. Ray says something else, just a sentence or two that’s most likely idiotic bullshit, but Brad doesn’t hear it and tries instead to get his heart to stop feeling like it’s going to jump out his throat. Ray’s knee is bouncing, up and down and up and down, and his fingers are white-knuckled around his spoon, but if it wasn’t for that, and if it wasn’t for the way Ray’s heart was pounding, Brad would never even know that Ray was feeling anything, any sort of attachment or apprehension at all.

“We’ll call,” Brad says, as if it was simple as that. “The Corps has to allow that for bonded pairs.”

“Right,” Ray says, forcibly light. “Yeah, that’s… easy. Great talk, and all that other moto shit. Problem solved.”

He doesn’t sound any more convinced than Brad that this will work, will be easy. They’re not like other pairs, but Brad doesn’t give a shit; they’ve got no other choice.

 

Brad hears from the higher-ups at Pendleton the next day. It’s funny how it works like that, one thing falling into place before setting off a chain of events.

“Take a few days,” he’s told. “Think the posting over.”

“With all due respect, I don’t need to, sir,” Brad says, and he accepts the offer to be a part of the exchange with the Royal Marine Commandos on the spot. “It would be an honor to represent the United States Marine Corps,” he says, but what he means is, Get me the fuck out of here. Poke hasn’t re-upped; Ray hasn’t re-upped, and he’s heading home soon, anyway. There’s nothing keeping him in California, nothing keeping him in Two-One, and the last thing Brad ever wants to do is stagnate. He’s not dependent on anyone or anything, and the Brad that he was before the ambush on the bridge would have been champing at the bit for this opportunity.

That’s who he still is—he’s still the Iceman, even after all this shit—and so he says yes.

Ray drives him to base the day he’s set to ship out. They’re in Brad’s truck, which Ray promises to leave all squared away when he heads back to Missouri, and Brad just shrugs. He’s trusted Ray with his life; trusting Ray with a fucking Ford SUV is nothing.

“Think I’m gonna go visit Walt, too,” Ray says. It feels like they’re back in the Humvee, Ray behind the wheel and Brad sitting next to him. “He’s out in Virginia a little longer, eating his wife’s pussy.”

“Okay,” Brad says. He doesn’t know why Ray’s telling him all this; they’ll have to talk on the phone every few days, anyways, just to try to keep the headaches away.

“Quit being so fucking blue, homes!” Ray says, not taking his eyes off the road. “You love this war shit! Sure, you’ll be hanging out with a bunch of European Socialist retards instead of your badass, take-no-shit American brethren, and sure, you’ll miss your old pal Ray-Ray, but that’s why I slipped a couple photos in your bag, you know, photos of me wearing nothing but an American flag and my birthday suit. This way, you can show all those English pussies that American Marines even jerk off patriotically, and that

“Ray,” Brad says, “shut up.”

“You’re not the boss of me,” Ray responds in a petulant voice. And then, more seriously, “Ten bucks you miss that now, huh?”

Brad doesn’t answer, and maybe it’s just how well Ray knows him, or maybe it’s because of the bond, but Ray keeps quiet, too, and just leaves Brad to his thoughts.

It’s not that Brad’s nervous or that he doesn’t want to go—that’s not the case at all—but for the first time in a long time, he feels like he’s leaving something behind, and he’s not an idiot, he knows that something is Ray. It’s something he doesn’t want to think about, and so instead he focuses on becoming the Iceman again: cold, detached, and super fucking efficient.

It’s good; it makes him feel like himself again.

When they get to Pendleton, Ray pulls over to the curb and idles the car. He doesn’t attempt to get out and help Brad with his bags, doesn’t try to hug Brad before he goes. Brad likes that, appreciates that, but then he pauses halfway out of the car when it finally sets in that he won’t be seeing Ray for months. Ray is the closest thing he has to a constant in his life for the past while, always just over his shoulder, talking and watching his six. Brad leaving feels like the end of something, like maybe if it weren’t for everything else, he’d never see Ray again.

Brad looks at Ray, and Ray smiles back just a little, says, “Go get ‘em, tiger,” his face hidden behind those ridiculous Elvis glasses. And Brad can’t even blame what happens next on the bond, because he thinks it completely through, weighs the pros and the cons, understands that it’s him and not the bond that reaches out and presses the back of his hand against the back of Ray’s in goodbye, just for the briefest of seconds. The gesture either means nothing or everything, but Brad isn’t sure which.

He walks away right after, slinging his bag over his shoulder as he goes, and his heart hammers away in his chest. He doesn’t know whose fault that is.

 

His first day with the RM is kind of a shit show, if Brad’s going to be honest. Not externally—externally, Brad is the fucking picture of US Military perfection and does his country proud—but internally, Ray’s being more than a bit annoying through the bond. Brad can feel it, how Ray drops something heavy on his foot; his foot hurts like a bitch from it, too, from his big toe up through his ankle, and he balls the fingers of his right hand tight enough to leave fingernail marks on his palm, just so none of it shows on his face. And later, when Brad’s meeting with his superior officer, Ray contemplates jacking off. Brad tries to be as clear as possible that if Ray does, he’ll fly back and murder Ray personally, because sporting a chubb during introductions is something Brad doesn’t have the patience for.

Leave it to Ray fucking Person to refuse to leave Brad alone, even with three thousand miles between them.

Meeting the grunts, though—that part, Brad’s okay with, because English or American, they’re all still just a bunch of gym-rat, neck-up-dead, Special Olympic rejects with a proclivity for cussing, spitting, and fucking anything that moves.

The guy who shows him around is named Max—he’s short, like Ray, and super young, with the biggest eyebrows Brad has ever seen—and he speaks his own fucking bizarre brand of English.

“But breakfast is bloody hard to cock-up, I guess,” Max is saying as they walk to barracks to meet the men in Brad’s platoon. Brad hasn’t really been listening. “No toad-in-the-hole or anything, but their fry-up’s alright.” Max looks at Brad as they walk, and Brad just look ahead to where they’re going. “You don’t have much to say, do you?”

“No,” Brad says.

In the barracks, Max introduces him around, gives him the SparkNotes of who’s who, says shit like, “This is Jeremy; he’s got a missus back home that’s up the duff,” and, “That’s Steven How-Do-You-Do; poor man’s Tinie Tempah, yeah?” and, “Ben; total knob, end of story.”

Brad nods once, to show that he heard, and although he can almost hear Ray calling him a total fucking tool for it, he says, “Gentlemen.”

“I’m not a poor man’s Tinie Tempah,” Steven says, mostly ignoring Brad in favor of defending his own honor. “I’m like, maybe a working man’s Tinie Tempah, or something.” He says it like somefink, and it’s almost enough to make Brad miss Baptista.

“Agreed,” Jeremy says to Brad. “But Ben is a total knob, Yankee, so I’d be mindful of the clap when around him.”

“Yankee?” Brad deadpans. “You dumb, sheep-fucking, tea-sipping, royalty-worshipping fuckwits invented this language, and that’s the best you can do? Frankly speaking, I’m beginning to question whatever authority deemed you intelligent enough to be operating deadly weaponry.”

The whole room erupts into laughter, like maybe they’ve just been fucking with Brad, or like maybe they thought Brad wouldn’t be able to go toe-to-toe with them. Either way, it feels like Brad just passed a test, and Brad’s warrior spirit is insulted that they even felt the need to try.

“You’ve got jokes,” Max says. “I like you,” and he gets halfway to slinging an arm around Brad’s shoulder before he rethinks the idea.

 

For some unknown reason, Max really takes to Brad, follows him around when they have downtime and laughs even when Brad's not trying to be funny. It's especially strange because Brad doesn't even remotely attempt to be nice to him, but then again, Brad's always been a bit of an overbearing asshole to Ray, and look where that got him.

They're in the mess hall a few days into Brad's stay, making their way down the line, and Max is alternating between talking about his girl and naming the British dishes in front of them, half for Brad's benefit and half just for the entertainment value.

"She's well fit, man," Max says. "Curves like—" he whistles, motions an hourglass shape with his hands.

"So what the hell is she doing with you?" Brad asks, and from behind them, Ben cuts in.

"We think he's making her up, because..." he trails off, raises an eyebrow in Max's direction like, Look at the guy.

"And they ain't even bonded or nothing," Steven How-Do-You-Do finishes, and Max just laughs.

"She likes me 'cause I'm well hung," he explains, and then turns to Brad, points to what's in front of them, and says, "That's a Scotch egg. Highly recommended." He brings his thumb and forefinger together in the universal hand gesture for okay.

Brad ignores his advice, sticks to what he knows for now, and keeps moving. Eventually, they reach the end of the line, and Brad's got some kind of stew and potatoes, pineapple for dessert, and even though it's probably complete shit, it still looks a million times more appetizing than fucking jalapeno and cheese, and that was a top-of-the-line MRE.

They grab a table, Jeremy already eating as he walks, and when they sit down, Ben picks the conversation back up from where they left off. He says, "She's gotta like you for something, seeing as she's willing to shag you and you don't even have potential."

Brad rolls his eyes, says, "This bullshit again," because it seems like no matter where he goes, it's all anyone wants to fucking talk about.

"Well, sorry we can't all be like Jeremy, over here," Max says, faux offended, and when they all turn to look at Jeremy, he's practically inhaling his food, and all Brad can think of is Ray and his milkshake, Ray and that fucking ravioli.

"Forgiven," Jeremy says, smiling around a mouthful of Scotch egg.

Steven How-Do-You-Do turns to Brad at that and explains, "Jeremy and his girl are bonded, married, starting a family," he ticks them off on his fingers as he speaks, "and they only met five months ago at a pub." He rolls his eyes a little, and then smiles as if something about it is funny, or maybe like there's an inside joke about it. "That's pure romance, innit?"

"Sounds fucking neck-up dead," Brad answers honestly, and the guys all laugh at that, like maybe they think Brad's joking. Jeremy and his wife hardly even know each other; how can they know that they want kids together, than they want to spend their lives together? They can't, and that's the point. The social brainwashing by a pussy-liberal media that pushes the archaic, make-believe idea of soul mates strikes again.

"You got a someone, Brad?" Max asks, and Brad doesn't want to get into it, so he just shrugs.

Jeremy stands up before anyone can asks, already done with his dinner, and says, "Right, off to the phones before everyone else rushes over. See you," and then he's gone, taking his tray with him.

"Mental," Ben says, watching him go, and Steven scoffs.

"You're just jealous he's bonded," he points out.

"Hey, Michelle and I've got potential," Ben reminds them.

"Right, potential," Max says. "Like that ever works out." It's so much like Ray, except for how Max says it lightly, like he believes that something actually can come of it, and like he's just giving Ben a hard time because he can.

And that's just—Brad is so fucking sick of it, of how no one can be or even wants to be their own person anymore. Brad doesn't get it, because he likes being alone, and now that he has what everyone else wants, he's stuck with Ray feeling like a phantom limb everywhere he goes. Now, even when Brad's not with anyone, he's with Ray.

Brad balls up his napkin and tosses it onto his empty tray, and Ray sends him a wave of calm, like he’s telling him to chill the fuck out.

"Not that this hasn’t been fun," he says, "but listening to you go on and on about soul bonds like you were a bunch of lonely, obsessed, high school virgin bitches that just saw their first X-rated, missionary-only, soft-core soulbond porn is an affront to my warrior spirit. I'm heading to the weight room, and I'll see you when you're done braiding each other's hair and discussing whether or not you should let Bobby from fifth period science class touch you down there behind the bleachers."

He picks up his tray and heads out, the three of them laughing and hollering at him, and Max just shouts after him, "Oi! Bobby from fifth has some very soft hands!" They laugh some more, and it figures that that's what they'd take away from it all.

They're a bunch of undignified idiots, Brad thinks, and he tamps down on his smile as he goes.

 

Brad finally calls Ray towards the end of his first week with the Royal Marines, felling physically fine but not wanting to chance it. There’s a phone room open twenty-four hours for calling home to bond partners, and although there’s technically no time limit on phone use in his free time, Brad decides to keep it to ten minutes at a go, in part because he doesn’t want to seem like a weak pussy who was bested by genetics and forced into needing Ray, and in part because he knows that he is.

Ray picks up on what has to be the last ring before it clicks over to voicemail, and he sounds slightly rushed, even though all he says is one word, just, “Yeah?”

“Hey,” Brad says. “You got a few?”

“Course, homes,” Ray says. “I was supposed to be at band practice like five minutes ago, but whatever, those douchebags are always late; they can wait for once.”

“The Corps mourns the loss of your punctuality,” Brad deadpans, relaxing further into his seat, and Ray laughs. Brad presses the phone tighter against his ear, and his body relaxes, as if Ray were really there with him.

“Fuck, homes, I’m a free man now,” Ray reminds him. “I don’t give a shit. Although I will say this about being an ex-Marine: it’s hot as balls out here in Nevada, right, I’m talking noon in Baghdad hot, and I’m not gonna wear a shirt when it’s that hot out and I don’t have to, you know? It gives me fucking MOPP suit flashbacks and shit. But now all anyone can say to me is, Weren’t you in the Marines? I thought you’d be buffer. Yeah fucking right. The Marine Corps fucking starved me out there with all that stolen MRE bullshit, and civilians, I’m telling you, Brad, they just can’t understand a fine young gentleman such as myself.”

“Maybe that’s because they know you’re a fucking liar,” Brad says. He’s missed this, even though he hasn’t really even had the time to. “Rudy lost twenty-five pounds and still looked like a bodybuilder in a pimp’s suit.”

“Ah, Fruity Rudy,” Ray says. “The exception to every rule. So how are those British weirdos treating you? They better not be cooler than me, homes.”

Brad avoids the obvious opening Ray left him and says, “It’s alright. Same shit, different place.”

“Yeah, I hear you,” Ray says, and something in his voice—Brad can practically picture him, standing there shirtless in a house Brad’s never seen, all ink and collarbones. It makes Brad’s chest ache.

“Any headaches since I left?” he asks. It’s the reason he’s calling.

“No,” Ray tells him. “You’d have known if there were.”

“I know,” Brad says, because he does. Still, it’s nice getting the confirmation from him.

“I know that you know,” Ray half mocks. “Oh, shit, though—you’ll never guess who I saw the other day.”

“Walt,” Brad says.

“No. Well, yeah, but you already knew I was going to see him. Guess again.”

“I don’t fucking know. Garza?”

“Nah, homes, you suck at this,” Ray says. “Get this, right, I was driving through North Carolina on my way to see Walt and his lady love—who, by the way, is way too fucking hot for him—and I pulled into this gas station, and who should be at the next pump but good old Pappy Patrick, still hobbling around in one of those fucking boots, you know, those cast things.”

“He must’ve loved that surprise,” Brad says. Someone walks past the open door to the phone room, and although couldn’t have cared less about who Brad was talking to, Brad nudges the door shut with the toe of his boot, anyway.

“Homes, he took one look at me and was all,” he imitates Pappy’s accent, “Person, what the hell are you doing in my state? Apparently some time after he came back, the Key Wives Network visited him—you know, that bullshit run by Encino Man’s wife—and he had his bloody boot just laying out on the floor, bullet hole and everything, and—fucking—Godfather’s wife was there too, and she saw it, and I guess she told Ferrando, because the next time Ferrando saw Pappy, he chewed him out about showing the boot to his wife. Which, one, talk about preventing civilians from understanding the harsh realities of war, and two, your fucking wife just barged in on Pappy! That’s not his fault!”

“Not my fucking wife,” Brad says, just to be contrary.

“No, I know, it was a figure of speech.”

“That’s not a figure of speech,” Brad tells him.

“Fine, it was me being a retard, whatever,” Ray says. “Quit being so difficult, homes, or I’ll start thinking you’re doing it on purpose.”

Brad smiles, and since there’s no one around to see it, he doesn’t bother to hold it back.

“Go to band practice, Ray,” Brad says. “I’ll talk to you later.”

“Yeah, alright,” Ray says, and then that’s it; he hangs up.

Brad stays by the phone for a second longer, just thinking. It’s nothing important, not really, but everything about that phone call was normal. It makes Brad feel, for the first time in a long time, that this is actually possible, him and Ray and the bond. He thinks they might actually pull it off, no headaches, no touching, no completing the bond. It’s nice; Brad likes the reminder of why he kept Ray around in the first place.

 

They fall into a pattern pretty quickly; Brad does his thing and Ray does his, and they talk on the phone every few days, whenever Brad feels like calling, or whenever he has the time to. There’s no pressure to do it, and Brad’s thankful for that much; it makes him feel a lot more like he’s calling a friend and a lot less like he’s calling his ball and chain back home. Another thing that he didn’t really expect is the fact that he doesn’t really miss Ray, not more than he misses anyone else; it’s like the old Brad Colbert is back, almost like he never even left, and that’s—it’s good news. It shows that he’s still in control of himself. He likes it with the Royal Marines, likes the fact that it’s something new, and surprisingly likes the fact that he’s constantly surrounded by Max and his group of equally young and equally dumb friends. They’re not Two-One, and they’re not Poke or the LT, but they’ll do.

“Yo, homes,” Ray says when he picks up the next time Brad calls. He’s eating something—chips, maybe—and the sound is loud in the receiver.

“Hey,” Brad says. As usual, he doesn’t have anything to say, but he called anyways because of the headaches.

“Just in time for Final Jeopardy,” Ray says. “It’s a commercial now, but the category is Baseball Stadiums. You should see the dweebs on this show, Brad, I mean, they’re smart as shit, but no way any of them knows anything about sports.”

“You say that like you know anything about sports,” Brad says. Everyone’s still in the chow hall, and so he’s alone in the phone room.

“Yeah, well, I’m not on Jeopardy,” Ray says. “Although I tried out for Wheel of Fortune once, did I tell you that? Right when I got to California for the first time.”

“I take it you were passed over,” Brad says. He leans back in his chair and stretches his legs out, stares at the ceiling with the phone cradled between his ear and his shoulder.

“You know how it goes with those artistic, liberal types, homes,” Ray says. “I intimidated them with my stunning good looks and my numerous tattoos, and they felt they couldn’t pick me or I’d steal the show from the host. Well, that, and I didn’t suck enough cock.”

A laugh gets startled out of Brad, and Ray feels pleased and warm upon hearing it. Brad never thought he’d see the day, and he’ll deny it if anyone ever asks, but he’s come to like Ray’s vulgar, never-ending, stream of consciousness babbling.

“Nobody speaks any fucking English out here,” he says, a total non sequitur, and that makes zero sense, but Ray hums around a handful of chips like he understands.

“Yeah,” Ray responds, mouth still full, “I can’t even watch Top Gear without fucking subtitles.”

The name sounds familiar, but Brad can’t place it, and so he asks, “Which one’s that?”

“The new one about cars.”

“Oh. I like that one.”

“Fucking duh, homes,” Ray says. “You actually like maybe three things in life, and shit that can get you killed are all three. Actually—BBC should give us a show, where we just pimp Humvees on a budget, like we did before Iraq.”

I wouldn’t even watch that show,” Brad tells him.

“Yeah, so moto, dude, thanks for that,” Ray says sarcastically. “Oh, wait, it’s back. Hold on… Okay, This Major League Baseball team’s current stadium was built for a twentieth century Olympics.

“Atlanta Braves,” Brad says. It’s easy. “Georgia.”

“Dodgers?” Ray guesses, more a question than anything else. “Didn’t they have the Olympics in LA in like, fucking prehistoric times?”

“They didn’t build Dodger Stadium for it, though,” Brad says. “So what’s the answer?”

“The question is, Who are the Atlanta Braves?” Ray corrects. “No money for you, Bradley.”

Brad shakes his head and shrugs to convey that he doesn’t give a fuck, even though Ray can’t see him. He changes the subject, asks, “Any side-effects?”

“Nah, homes,” Ray says, knowing immediately what Brad means. “Right as rain, although I did have the sudden urge to sacrifice a pig to the gods and the spirits of the land the other day… Could this be because of the bond?” He sounds inordinately entertained by himself.

“For the last fucking time, Ray,” Brad says, “I’m not a goddamn Viking.”

“Let’s be real here, Brad,” Ray says lightly, “you don’t even know what you are.”

Brad’s about to respond with something just as biting, something about Ray’s absent father, even though he’s not really mad about the Viking thing, but then Jeremy walks in and throws himself down on a free chair, ostensibly to wait for the phone, and so instead Brad replies with no heat, “You’re literally too much of a Whiskey Tango, Special Ed failure to even hold a conversation with. I’ll talk to you tomorrow,” and he hangs up.

“That’s some sweet talking,” Jeremy says lazily, like he doesn’t care that he was eavesdropping because he doesn’t care about what he heard.

“All yours,” Brad says.

He’s halfway out the door before Jeremy’s mumbled, “Thanks, man,” reaches him, and he doesn’t bother to respond.

 

They don’t talk for almost a week, and it’s fine, nothing unusual about that, but then Brad wakes up sometime in the middle of the night feeling like he's just had his head cracked open against a rock, and that’s nothing short of a bad sign. It's excruciating, the kind of pain he'd never felt before Carey the escort and the kind of pain he hasn't felt since, and he can't even move, his entire body on fire, Ray's entire body on fire. He tries to reach out, tries to figure out what the fuck Ray did to cause this, but he can't feel anything past the pain, can't see anything past the pinpricks of light in his eyes.

Brad tucks his knees loosely ups against his chest and grits his teeth. He thinks that if he doesn't, he'll end up waking the others, and the last thing he wants is for anyone to see him like this, like he can't handle his own shit.

The pain spikes again, comes at him like a thousand knives, and he must do something, must make some sort of noise, because then Max rolls over, his bed only a few feet away in the barracks, and he says sleepily, "Brad? You alright?"

"Yes," Brad gets out, and even though his bones are breaking, and even though his head is split in two, he rolls out of bed, stumbles to the bathroom. He throws up in the toilet the second he gets there, and he thinks it's lucky that he moved when he did.

It's fucking disgusting, but Brad still hunches over and rests his forehead against the cool tile floor, and it doesn't help, but he pretends it does, anyway.

Ray. Fucking—where is Ray, and what's wrong, and is he okay, did something happen or did he do something to—

"Hey, mate," Steven How-Do-You-Do says from the doorway. He's there with Max and Jeremy, filling up a glass of water. "Ben's getting dressed; he's going to wake one of the docs."

Brad doesn't move, doesn't kick them out even though he wants to, just says, "Don't bother. They can't help." And they can't; Doc Bryan told him as much ages ago, and Brad trusts him a million times more than anyone in this fucking country.

"What's wrong?" Max asks after a pause, and he crouches down, helps Brad sit up. He looks fucking terrified, and Brad can only imagine what he must look like to have caused that.

"Bond headaches," Brad says, because everything hurts so fucking much that it's not worth it to keep it a secret at this point. The pain has lessoned, he thinks, just the tiniest bit, but maybe he's just becoming accustomed to it, he doesn't know.

"What's—?" Steven asks, but he's not asking Brad, instead looking at Max and Jeremy, at Ben, who has just walked up behind them.

"Dunno," Max says, but he says it like Walt said, The car kept coming, and Brad doesn't like that.

"Hey," he says to Max. The stars are back in front of his eyes again, but his body definitely hurts less now, feels like jumping into a cold pool. "Hey, Max," he says again, "you're okay."

"Jesus Christ," Max says, his voice cracking, and he's pushing Brad's short hair back with one open palm. Brad doesn't pull away, but he does wish it were Ray's hand instead. "I'm not worried about me, you fucker."

"He's bonded," Jeremy says, amazed, and Brad wants to tell him to shut the fuck up, because hearing it is different from saying it. "He's got someone, but he hasn't completed the bond yet. Why wouldn't you—"

"Holy shit," Ben says. "I didn't even know that was possible. I thought that was just, like, a tall tale."

"Shut the fuck up," Brad says finally. "Please, just shut the fuck up for two minutes."

They do, all of them falling silent, and they keep sitting there with Brad, getting him water and putting a cold washcloth on the back of his neck. It makes Brad feel like a weak pussy bitch, lower on the totem pole than even the POGest of POGs, but it sort of helps, and so he doesn't say anything.

No one says anything for a lot longer than two minutes.

Tentatively, Brad reaches out through the bond, looks for Ray, and Ray's right there, in exactly the same shape as Brad. And it's weird, but Brad feels like the bond has strengthened just a little bit more, because he can almost picture Ray, sitting half-naked in his bathtub with cold water running out of the tap.

Brad knows exactly what he'd do if he were there: he'd sit in the tub next to Ray, their sides pressed together and their feet hanging out over the edge, and he'd wrap all five fingers of one hand tight around the delicate bones of Ray's wrist, stroke his thumb over the thin skin hiding Ray's veins. It's so vivid, he can almost feel it, and every last bit of pain and tension drains out of his body, out of Ray's.

There are no words exchanged between them, not through the bond, just the vaguest of emotions all jumbled up, but Brad can still feel it in his bones, Ray feeling, What the fuck was that? And Brad just sends back, I don't know. I don't know.

Later—ten, twenty, a hundred minutes later—Max helps him back to his bunk before crawling back into his own. Brad closes his eyes, and Max just sits there, watching him from one bed over.

"Tell me if you need anything," Max says, a command in every way except for how someone at Max's rank doesn't get to command someone at Brad's.

"Okay," Brad says anyway, and he tries to fall asleep.

 

The next morning, Brad goes about his daily routine as if nothing had happened the night before, and the guys seem to be impressed by that. If anything, for Brad, it's mostly just a reminder of how young they really are, of how they've not yet actually been to war, because when you're invading a fucking country, you can't exactly pussy out of your duties because your fucking Tylenol hasn't kicked in. That mentality has stuck with Brad, even when he's not away on tour, and it probably always will.

"Fuckin' Iceman," Max says when they're all sitting around, cleaning their weapons. "Now I get it."

Brad looks at him, quiet for a second, and then asks, "Who the fuck did you hear that from?"

"I don't know," Max says with a shrug. "Just around."

It's beyond surreal, that the fucking British Royal Marines have heard stories of the Iceman, and if Brad didn't have other things going on, he'd tell Ray all about that, his voice deadpan as he said, Apparently being an air-headed, buck-toothed, pimple faced hick means not making the cut.

As it is, what he really says when he calls Ray is, "What the fuck was that?" It's early afternoon in England, as early as he would let himself call Ray without feeling bad about it being the middle of the night for him, and so Brad doesn't bother with hellos.

The phone room is empty, which is unusual considering that most of them are calling the same time zone; Brad guesses they all cleared out when they saw the look on his face as he stormed in.

"I don't fucking know, homes," Ray says, his voice at once defensive and sleepy. "You tell me; I almost brained myself on my kitchen counter last night."

"I was asleep, Ray," Brad tells him, but if he was asleep, and Ray was alone in his fucking kitchen—it's not good, that's all Brad knows.

"Oh," Ray says faintly, and Brad can feel Ray's worry, his fear, and very faintly, his hope.

"Cut it out," Brad says, because he doesn't need that, and Ray snaps back at him immediately.

"You cut it out," he says. "You're freaking out just as much as I am, and a calm fucking voice doesn't hide that anymore."

Brad shuts his eyes and pinches the bridge of his nose. He wants to rub his hand back and forth across Ray's spine, over his shirt and between his shoulder blades, and Ray knows it. Brad settles for taking a deep breath in through his nose, holding it for a second when he can't fill his lungs any more, and then slowly letting it all out through his mouth.

"We have to keep trying," he says finally.

"I'm doing everything I can think of, homes," Ray says. "Everything you say to do, I do. It's like I can't even wash my balls without your explicitly stated permission."

"Ray," Brad warns.

"I know, I know," Ray says, and then after a pause, "Look, it's not like we're both not thinking it."

"I'm not thinking it, Ray."

"You are, though," Ray insists. "Bonds are supposed to be about love and sex and shit, and right now, we're only getting the shit part of it."

"I'll figure it out," Brad says, because he will; he'll learn what they have to do to keep the bond exactly as it is, no sex even though he thinks he wants to, no love even though the thought of it is like 110 on his bike.

Only then Ray says, "I know you will," and it feels like they're having two different conversations, and Brad doesn't like that. He thought that, if anything, this bond was supposed to help him understand Ray more, but it hasn't, really, because no matter how much access Brad has to Ray's feelings, he still doesn't understand what they fucking mean.

Brad wants to just end the conversation and hang up, but he can’t, because they still don’t really know what caused the headache, and maybe it was because they hadn’t talked in a while, and so instead Brad changes the subject and asks about something he’s willing to talk about.

“What about that guy that tried out for your band?” Brad asks. “How was he?”

“Ugh,” Ray says, but he takes off talking, excitement lacing his voice like he’s glad he gets to talk about it. “That guy was such a douchebag, Brad, he was the Encino Man of shitty garage bands. He couldn’t even tune his own fucking guitar, I kid you not. You know he said he went to Berklee College? Like, I was pretty sure they taught you how to do that shit there, but nope, apparently they just teach you how to hold your cock and not shower for weeks.”

“Sounds like the Corps,” Brad says, and Ray laughs at that, the kind of embarrassing snort that gets startled out of him. Brad can feel it, how the tension seeps out of Ray’s body at that, and it makes Brad relax, too.

They’ll be okay for now, until they figure it out.

 

Brad ducks off base that night with Max and company, and they head to some shitty dive, not to get drunk or anything, but just for a drink or two.

"You deserve it, mate," Steven How-Do-You-Do says, handing Brad a pint of whatever was on tap, and he looks ridiculous not in his PT uniform or his utilities; he's wearing thick-rimmed glasses that aren't even fucking prescription, a denim jacket and bright red sneakers. Brad doesn't know shit about fashion, but maybe that's it, considering how the women are looking at him.

"I told you," Max says to him. "Poor man's Tinie."

"Oi, cool it with that," Steven says, laughing, and they all shift over to make room for him in their booth.

"Alright," Ben says, raising his glass and looking over at Brad. "To the baddest, toughest, coolest mother—"

"No," Brad says, cutting him off, and he takes a sip of his beer. He doesn't want any of that shit, that buddy-buddy stuff, because he's not doing any of this just to further the idea of the Iceman.

Ben, for his part, couldn't care less; he shrugs and then downs about half of his glass in one go.

Jeremy's quiet for most of the night, though, just drinking, slumped in the corner of the booth, alternating between looking at Brad and looking at the shit tacked to the walls.

When Ben's off taking a piss and Steven's off trying to prevent Max from striking out with someone by the bar, Brad finally turns to Jeremy and says, "What's with you?"

Jeremy just shrugs, and when Brad doesn't press him on it, he says, "I don't know how you're doing it."

Brad doesn't even have to ask what he means.

"I don't know how you're doing it," he says instead. "You've known your wife for five months; she could murder you in your sleep."

Jeremy actually laughs at that, throws his head back and everything, and says, "No, she couldn't; we're bonded. Look, I know it's none of my business—"

"You're right, it's not."

"—but just think on this, yeah? You don't want to fuck him—or maybe you do, but you won't—and a lifetime's a long time to go without. You gonna be a mate and just let him get his rocks off with someone from a pub?"

Brad thinks of Carey, of how it felt to touch her skin, and he hated it, but if Ray wants—Brad hates that, too, the idea of Ray doing anything like that with anyone else, but he won't let Ray do it with him, because that's not him wanting it; it's got to be the bond, and Brad knows this, and so does Ray, even if he doesn't care.

Jeremy just keeps talking, says, "Or what if it's not even that? What if it's just watching a movie, or something? You want it to be with you, or some bloke from his day job? You act like you don't care, but I've been there, bruv, and you're scared shitless."

Brad laughs a little in disbelief and says, "I'm not fucking scared of being bonded; I'm just not interested."

"You are, though," Jeremy says, and Brad thinks, Someone shut this fucking kid up before he embarrasses himself. "Everyone is; you're just the only one doing anything about it. Look, like, you're clearly ticked off I'm even talking about this, yeah?"

Brad nods and says lightly, "It's none of your fucking business, and you’re talking to me like I at all give a shit about what you have to say, or like I asked for your advice. I want to punch you in the mouth."

Jeremy jumps on that, his hands out like they're getting somewhere, and he says, "Exactly! And why do you feel that way? Because of chemicals in your brain. And why do you want to do all that mushy love stuff and that crazy bedroom stuff with your someone?"

"Because of a sick cosmic joke where I wound up bonded to him," Brad explains.

"Because of chemicals in your brain," Jeremy says triumphantly. "Wanting is wanting, and it ain't nothing but the same fucking thing under a different name, mate."

And Brad thinks—if can't be as simple as that, as simple as something some halfway drunk twenty-year-old said to him in a bar. It can't be, and it's not, and so Brad says, "Shut the fuck up."

"Yeah," Ben says, sliding back into the booth. "Shut the fuck up, Germy."

Jeremy rolls his eyes, and then Max and Steven come back not long after, and the five of them have one last round. Brad doesn't say much of anything for the rest of the night, but that's not so unusual for him, considering how he is, and no one says anything about it, not until they're headed back to base and Jeremy falls in step beside him.

"That was out of line of me," Jeremy says, as if Brad couldn't have shut down the conversation if he wanted to.

"Don't let it happen again," he says anyway, but that's only because he doesn't know how to say, I think you pulled the rug out from underneath me, and doesn’t know that he would even if he could.

 

That night, Brad lies awake and stares at the ceiling while everyone else is passed out around him, and as much as it pains him to admit it, he thinks about what Jeremy said. Ray had said some things like that, too, things like, What the fuck does it matter if the bond’s making me feel like this? and, Why can’t you understand that I don’t want a choice? but he never said it in a way that Brad could at all understand. Ray is impulsive and makes brash decisions, and so this whole time, Brad thought he was just being a fucking idiot, but the way Jeremy put it—wanting is wanting

Brad hates that he gets that. Brad hates that he wants.

He thinks about it sometimes—rarely, but he does. He thinks about the dip of Ray’s hips and his skinny fucking arms, the last bit of burn scarring still on his face from the portable stove, his janky teeth. But Brad’s never let himself think about it, not really, not in any of the ways that would actually make a difference, and maybe that’s the only part that matters.

But if he did—if he did think about it—he’d think about the sounds that he could wring out of Ray. That Whiskey Tango fuck wouldn’t shut up their entire time in Iraq, but with Brad’s hands on his skin, Ray wouldn’t be able to fucking think straight; with Brad’s tongue on his tattoos and Brad’s palm high on the inside of his thigh, Ray would forget all the words in his head. Even without the bond, Brad’s confident he could do that much.

It’s no different than a combat jack, and Brad doesn’t think anything of it, just quietly slides his hand under his sheets and pulls his cock out of his shorts. Everyone’s asleep, and Brad can be quiet, even if Ray probably can’t. Even without words, Ray’s probably a steady stream of sound, frustrated grunts when Brad pulls back, a high-pitched whine in the back of his throat when Brad doesn’t.

Brad doesn’t jerk off slow, doesn’t draw it out, because all he really wants to do is get off and then go to sleep. He knows what he likes and checks all those boxes, tight fingers at the head, rubs his thumb over the slit, thinks flashes of scenes in his head that are mostly just skin without anything to back them up.

Brad feels it then, Ray in the back of his mind, and it almost feels like Ray’s laughing. He doesn’t let it worry him, though, because it’s not like Ray knows what he’s thinking, and so it’s not embarrassing; Ray’s been getting himself off twice a day ever since Brad left the States, and Brad hardly even notices it anymore. So he just tries to ignore Ray, really, and it’s pretty much like an average fucking day.

But if Ray knew? He’d never let Brad live it down. He’d probably find it just as funny as he did hot, because he’s a fucked up hick like that, and then just to torture Brad, he’d probably not let Brad touch when they were together, just sit there on Brad’s couch and laugh, his bare feet peeking out underneath the ratty ends of his jeans, his head tilted back, exposing his neck. If he could, Brad would lean in and bite down hard on the soft skin just underneath Ray’s jaw, or maybe at the juncture where his neck and shoulder meet, and that would shut Ray up, get Ray hard. He’s been practically gagging for Brad’s cock since they met, and Brad wonders what he’d do to get it.

It’s fucking undignified, how close Brad is to coming already, and just from thinking about his RTO. Ray used to lay shirtless on the hood of their Humvee trying to dry out his bacne, and now here Brad is, jerking one out to him, to the thought of kissing him on the couch, their bodies hardly touching, to the thought of running the backs of his fingers along the skin of Ray’s lower stomach. He thinks of fucking Ray, too, of course he does, but it’s not even that, it’s just Ray, just his tattoos and his mouth and his knobby fucking knees that do it for Brad, the way he’d drive the Humvee with radio wires hanging out of his mouth or how he smiled as he put on his Elvis glasses and said, Yeah, homes, we pimpin’.

Wanting is wanting, but fuck, does Brad want, and he comes all over his fingers a minute later.

 

Brad's aware that it might be considered by others to be pretty fucked up, but he calls Poke the day after his big revelation instead of anyone else, instead of Ray, because he needs to talk to someone and Poke's the closest thing he has to a best friend, especially now that it's looking like Ray might be more than that.

Poke picks up mid-speech, saying, "—there in a second, sweetie, you go on in—yeah?"

"Poke," Brad says. He'd been walking around outside the barracks, pacing back and forth along the sidewalk like he was on duty at the fucking Tomb of the Unknown Soldier before he finally swallowed his pride enough to call. "Bad time?"

"Nah, dog," Poke says easily. "Just taking my little girl to gymnastics. Tried to get her to play tee-ball, but it didn't take."

"Ah, the plight of the upper middle class father," Brad deadpans.

“Ain’t my fault my wife is smart as shit and knows how to make money,” Poke says. He tries to be tough, but his voice softens whenever he talks about her, and that’s another thing that Brad worries about: that he’ll get like that when it comes to Person.

"Two weeks out of the service, and you’re already bitching."

"Dog, I love my girls, but I ain’t made for this shit,” Poke says. “I repo’d cars and shot motherfuckers for a living. What do I know about the PTA?”

“If Encino Man can captain a company,” Brad says, but he doesn’t really finish the thought. Instead, he says, “It’s not all bad.”

“Nah, Brad,” Poke says. He doesn’t even have to ask. “It’s not.”

It’s one of the reasons he keeps Poke around, the way Poke knows when to be serious, and so Brad searches for the words, says as though it pains him to admit it, “I’m not all that adverse to my situation anymore.”

He doesn't even need to hear Poke's laughter to know that he just sounded like a complete fucking moron. Brad just doesn't know how else to say it; he's not— words were never his strong point.

"Dog, I've been trying to tell you," Poke starts.

"The fuck you have," Brad shoots back, and Poke scoffs, the sound familiar even thousands of miles away.

"Man, you white boys need to get your shit together," he says, as if that was some sort of defense to a personal attack.

"It's not fucked up?" Brad asks, because he needs to know before he does anything, and if anyone will tell it to him how it is, it's Poke. "Me and Ray?"

"Yeah, it's fucked," Poke tells him. "Ray is one weird-ass motherfucker who won't shut up and can’t sit still, and you're this eight-foot-tall Aryan Jew who avoids all human interaction like it was the plague. But fucked don't mean it's wrong, dog."

Brad thinks about that for a second, and if he's honest, it's more than he was hoping to hear. It was essentially the Antonio Espera Seal of Approval, and considering that Poke gets enraged and personally offended by pretty much everything, that's saying something. Brad thinks about thanking him, about letting Poke know how much he appreciates everything he's done, but in the end, Brad just rolls his eyes.

"Poke, that was Elton John-loving, Culture Club-blasting, cage dancing in short shorts gay."

"Says the dude that's bonded to another dude," Poke points out. "That's the white man's double standard, right there."

"I thought you'd love double standards," Brad says lightly, just to piss him off. "They mean your daughter gets to go to college for free, because you're all sorts of minorities."

"It's called diversity, dog, and fuck you, too," Poke says, and Brad laughs; he's just shooting the shit. "I'm happy for you, Brad."

"Yeah. Thanks," Brad says, and he means it.

 

Brad calls in from his car and uses up the four days of accrued leave that he has, and when they ask for a reason behind the short notice, he has to bite back the None of your fucking business in order to explain that he's bonded. His words come out stilted, because it really is none of their fucking business, but the second he hangs up, he realizes that he's happy. Brad's really fucking happy, and he wonders if he'd have felt this way back in Iraq, if he'd accepted the bond right away, or if this feeling has been building up and building up for weeks, for all the days Brad spent denying anything was happening between him and Ray.

At the airport, Brad parks his car in one of the long-term lots, and grabs his military-issue backpack out of the passenger seat. It's all he brought with him, not wanting to waste time with checked luggage, and he slings it over his shoulder as he heads into the terminal, as he breezes through security and buys a cup of coffee on the other side.

Ray texts him just as he's about to board. Maybe he can tell something's up, or maybe it's just that Brad's side of the bond is out of whack, Brad doesn't know, but Ray still asks, You okay, homes?

Fine, Brad texts back quickly, and then he shuts off his phone. He settles into his seat, and the old woman next to him looks at him like she knows something, and Brad just smiles politely at her before looking away; there's nothing to know. Brad's nervous and happy and finding it hard to sit still, and although he's not used to any of that, this woman still doesn't know shit.

Brad stays awake the entire flight. He knows he probably should sleep, but everything he's feeling just makes Ray worried, which makes Brad worried, and he can't help thinking these stupid fucking thoughts of how maybe Ray doesn't even want him anymore. It's bullshit; Brad knows Ray still wants him, but he wouldn't blame Ray if he changed his mind, not after all the shit Brad dragged him through.

At the other end—when Brad lands at JLN—he thinks about maybe calling Ray, telling him to come pick him up, but in the end he doesn't, because Nevada is a good hour away, and then another hour back to Ray's before Brad can touch him, and Brad doesn't want to waste his time. Instead, he pays the arm and a fucking leg that people are charging to take him sixty miles, and tells the driver to drop him off at the gym where Ray works.

When he turns on his phone halfway into the drive, he's got a handful of texts from Ray, things like, You feel way too happy for it to be anything other than your brain releasing death endorphins, and, You'd tell me if you were shipping out, right? and his last one, Yeah, fuck you too, homes. Brad wants to respond, but he doesn't really know what to say, and so he doesn't.

When he finally gets to the gym and pays the cab fare, the person behind the reception desk isn't Ray. Instead, it's pretty much Ray's antithesis, some incredibly tanned, unnecessarily muscular guy that looks like the gay love child of Rudy and a shaggy-haired, surfer punk bitch.

"Can I help?" the guy asks, smiling at Brad. His nametag says Scott, and Brad prays he's not as dumb as he looks.

"I'm looking for Ray," Brad says, and Scott just shakes his head.

"No can do," Scott says apologetically. "He's not working today."

Of course, it fucking figures. He could just call Ray—should just call Ray—but at this point, it kind of feels like a Recon mission. Brad likes that; he likes having to work for it. He came all the way out here, and so even though it looks beyond sketchy, he asks, "Does he live around here?"

Scott looks at him, gives him the once over like he's judging Brad, like he thinks Brad might secretly be a loan shark out to bust Ray's kneecaps, and then he asks, wary, "You Brad?"

"Yeah," Brad says, because Ray's got a gigantic fucking mouth, and so it figures that he'd have said something.

Scott smiles again when he says, "Dude! Ray's gonna be so psyched. Two seconds and I'll go get you his address?"

And Brad thinks, Un-fucking-believable. This idiot would have just given his address out to the first asshole that said his name was Brad. He doesn't say anything, though, because no matter how much he wants to, he wants Ray's address more.

Ridiculous; he’s embarrassing himself already.

 

Ray’s house is a run-down ranch with an overgrown garden and an old wooden porch, and when Brad gets there, he almost doesn’t want to walk up to the door, because he doesn’t know what the fuck he’s doing. He’s never been this guy, the guy who flies halfway around the world for someone else, and it scares the shit out of him, because it’s pretty fucking gay and leaves him pretty fucking vulnerable.

Eventually, Brad nuts up and knocks on the wooden frame of the screen door, and it’s only as he does that he realizes that Ray might not even be home, that maybe he’s out, or has someone over, or has other plans that don’t include Brad. And the longer he waits outside in the sun, the more it feels like this is probably the case, and Brad starts to feel like a fucking idiot for coming. He doesn’t know what he was expecting, doesn’t even really know what he was hoping for, and the more he thinks about it, the more this starts looking like a shit idea.

He turns, starts making his way back down the driveway, and it’s only once he does that the door is thrown open, and Ray’s calling out, “Brad?”

Brad stops and looks at him; he’s shirtless and wearing only a pair of slim-fitting jeans, his cheeks and his chest tinged pink from the sun, and looking at him, Brad just wants. It’s as simple as that.

“It’s called sunblock, Ray,” he says, and makes his way back up the drive with his bag thrown over his shoulder, one hand in his pocket. His heart is racing, and he knows Ray can feel it, same as he can feel Ray’s own nervousness coming off him in waves. Brad’s nervous, too, but he more sure than anything else.

“Shit, Brad, is everything—what’re you doing here?” Ray asks, and Brad just shrugs, drop his duffel onto the porch. “You fucking idiot, I thought something happened.”

“It occurred to me that I left your Whiskey Tango ass alone without any adult supervision,” Brad says, because no matter how he feels, Ray is still Ray, and he’d give Brad a whole lot of shit for saying, I just wanted to see you and touch you, and I’m sorry it took me so long. “I got worried about your neighbors.”

Ray smiles in relief, sags his weight against the doorjamb, and says, “Look at you, homes. I send you to England a hardened American death-dealer, and you come back all soft and shit.”

“Ray,” Brad says. He’s close now, close enough to touch. And then, because he’s in Nevada and because he’s close enough and because he can, he leans in and kisses Ray, just because he wants to.

Ray kisses back like he does everything else: with too much confidence and no shame whatsoever, his fingers curled into Brad’s shirt at his waist, pulling him closer and closer and closer. It feels a little like being able to breathe again after being underwater for a long time, and Brad doesn’t know how he went so long without this, why he didn’t do this sooner. Standing there, with his body pressed against Ray’s, there’s nothing that he wants more.

Ray pulls back first, mostly because it’s not going to be Brad pulling back for once, and he says, “What are you doing?” And then, almost immediately afterwards, “We’re on my porch, you weirdo exhibitionist freak.”

“So let me in,” Brad says, and even though Ray tries not to smile, Brad sees his lips curve up anyways.

“You military types,” he says, speaking loudly and not really looking at Brad. He steps back and lets Brad in. “Always taking advantage of us innocent civilians.”

“You haven’t been innocent a day in your life,” Brad says. “Who are you kidding?”

“Not you, I guess,” Ray says, and then he studies Brad’s face for a second. Brad can tell he’s unsettled. He thinks about looking around at Ray’s place, but nothing there can hold his attention, not now. “You want a beer?”

“I didn’t fly halfway around the world for a fucking beer, Ray,” Brad answers honestly.

“Homes, I don’t know what the fuck you flew out here for,” Ray says, and he’s got his hands in his pockets like he’s nervous, like he’s uncomfortable, and if Brad focuses on it, he can tell that Ray is. Ray’s all those things, and he’s confused and scared and so fucking hopeful, and Brad wants to tell him to just pick one. Then Ray jerks his chin back towards the door, asks, “What was that about? Fixing the headaches?”

“Ray,” Brad says, and he’s a bit desperate, because he can’t explain it. “You fucking know.”

And it’s true; Ray knows—has to know—because there’s this bond between them, and if Ray tried, he could feel everything Brad’s feeling, the anxiety and the hope, the lust, the love. It’s all right there, waiting for him, and so there’s no way he doesn’t know why Brad came all the way to Nevada, fucking Missouri. He’s just being a shit, and they both know it. It’s not even a secret.

Still, it’s funny, almost, the way Ray keeps his poker face up, nothing showing, even though Brad doesn’t need to read his face to know what he’s thinking. Although maybe it’s actually be a bad sign, Brad thinks; maybe this is a sign of how much he’s fucked up in the past, the fact that Ray doesn’t want to be an easy read anymore. Maybe Ray doesn’t want to go out on a limb anymore; maybe Brad wasted too much time and he’s not worth that much anymore.

“You figure some shit out?” Ray asks.

“Yeah,” Brad answers, not even taking the time to think.

“You finally gonna let me touch your giant Hebrew cock?”

“Shit, yes, Ray,” Brad says, his voice almost cracking, because that’s—that’s the reason he’s here, for him and Ray to happen.

“Is this you agreeing to be the Patterson to my Fawcett?” Ray asks, and he barely makes it thought that one before the smile is stretching across his face, and he’s laughing.

“You’re so fucked up, I don’t even know where to begin,” Brad says.

Ray rolls his eyes and says, “Homes, you’re already so far past the beginning, it’s not even funny.”

And Brad? He thinks that maybe, finally, that’s the whole point.

 

They don’t waste any time. Or, maybe, they don’t waste any more time, because Ray licks his lips and scratches at his chest, and Brad moves in, runs his hands down Ray’s bare sides as he kisses his clavicle.

”Who the fuck starts with the collarbone?” Ray asks, but he still drops his head back a little, his hands scrambling up underneath the hem of Brad’s shirt. It scares the shit out of Brad, how much he feels just from touching Ray, like his heart no longer fits inside his ribcage. It feels like Ray could break him, if he wanted to, but it comes with the concrete knowledge that Ray’s never going to.

“Shut up, Ray,” Brad says, but that’s not what he wants, and Ray knows it, leads Brad back into the bedroom while still talking, telling him to hurry the fuck up and to ignore the shit in his room. The bed isn’t made, and there’s laundry all over the floor, and it’s a fucking disgraceful pigsty, but Brad loves everything about it, wants to fuck Ray on the bed and on the floor and bent over the dresser.

Ray makes a noise in the back of his throat like he knows what Brad’s thinking—and he does, of course he does, he can feel that much—and he says, “Yeah. Fuck, yeah, I want that, too.”

Ray reaches out and shoves Brad’s shirt up, and Brad helps him, tugs his t-shirt off by the back of the collar and then presses their two bodies together, chest to chest as they kiss. It’s not a lot of bare skin, but it’s some, and it’s Ray’s mouth on his, Ray’s hands on his hips, and that makes something go off in Brad’s brain, something happy and warm and content.

It feels like this is how it’s supposed to be, him and Ray, and it makes him greedy, makes him want more.

Brad reaches between them, flicks open the button on Ray’s jeans, and Ray pushes them down, steps out of them in the time it takes Brad to process what’s happening. Ray’s hard already, just from kissing, and Brad wonders if it’s because of him or the bond before the realizes that they’re the same thing.

Brad understands it now; his cock is hard, too, because it’s Ray. His heart is beating fast, or Ray’s is, or maybe there’s no difference anymore.

“Come on, homes,” Ray says, pushing Brad away from him and then catching his wrist before he can get too far. “Let’s fuck now to complete the bond, and then I’ll play with your cock some more later.” He raises his eyebrows, makes a face that’s presumably supposed to temp Brad, and Brad—

That sounds like a good idea. Brad really, really likes that idea, the idea of fucking Ray. He’s not blushing, but the thought makes him feel hot, makes him feel like he’s about to fly out of his own skin.

“Okay,” he says, but it comes out uneven, and he doesn’t care.

Ray heads over to his end table and digs through the drawer, tosses a bottle of lube onto the bed and then climbs on after it, lying back with one arm bent behind his head, his knees splayed out wide.

“Come ravish me, Big Gay Brad,” Ray says dramatically. “I’m waiting! Take me, I’m yours!”

“Shut the fuck up, Ray,” Brad says, but he likes that, hearing Ray say, I’m yours, and judging by the way Ray’s smiling, he knows it, too.

“I am, though,” Ray says seriously, and all the words Brad could possibly respond with dry up in his mouth, and so instead he just reaches out, rubs his thumb along the inside of Ray’s ankle, and finds comfort in the fact that Ray understands.

“Condom?” Brad asks, and Ray scowls.

“Fuck no,” he says, and then falters, says, “Unless—? I mean, I’m clean, I haven’t, for uh—longer than the bond, and you better not say a fucking word about that, but if you—and you better be fucking honest with me, homes, because you’re stuck with me and if you give me the clap, I will fucking kill—”

“Ray,” Brad says, cutting him off, and then he just shakes his head once, all the answer Ray needs. Brad hasn’t been with anyone since the last time his paperwork came through, an embarrassingly long time ago.

Ray strokes his cock lazily and says, “Well, hurry the fuck up, then,” and Brad could just stand there watching and be perfectly content, except for how he knows he can have more.

Ray’s tattoos are dark and stand out in stark contrast from his sun-pink skin, and Brad wants to suck bruises everywhere, all over him, something to say I was here, and I am permanent, too. It’s funny, almost, how strongly he feels that, and how quickly that would have sent him running before.

Brad takes off his jeans before he kneels on the bed and reaches for the lube, sitting back on his haunches next to Ray as he flips open the cap. He’s so fucking turned on, watching Ray watch him, and he stops for a second just to reach out and touch him, to run his palm along the inside of Ray’s thigh.

Ray’s hips buck up just once before Ray snaps at him, saying, “Quit being a dick.”

Brad laughs a little under his breath and then does as Ray asks, pours some lube out onto his fingers before rubbing one fingertip gently over Ray’s hole.

“Gonna start with one,” Brad tells him, taking one of Ray’s legs behind the knee and pushing it back, pressing Ray’s thigh into his chest. Brad’s fingers dimple his skin.

Homes,” Ray says, and it’s a fucking warning if Brad’s ever heard one. “I’m not a delicate fucking flower; quit treating me like some kind of pussy who can’t take it.”

Brad doesn’t bother responding, just pushes his finger in up to the first knuckle, and tries not to smile as Ray’s breath catches. He adds another finger when Ray’s ready, and a third when Ray’s shaking and fisting the sheets, and it’s only once it’s almost too much to deal with the feelings Ray’s sending him through the bond that Brad pulls his fingers out and replaces them with his cock.

When he presses in, Brad thinks he stops breathing. It’s just sex, he knows it’s just sex, but it’s sex with Ray—bonded sex with Ray—and he feels that everywhere, his skin and the inside of his chest, his cock, his head. When he’s in as far as he can go, his hips pressed flush against Ray’s, he just stills, can’t even move, because all of a sudden it’s like a window has just opened between them, or an entire fucking door, and Brad can see everything that’s going on inside Ray’s head, how much he wants this and loves Brad. Brad wants to say he’s deluded, because Ray sees Brad like Brad’s perfect, but he doesn’t because there’s a part of him that’s not as small as he once thought that wants Ray to think that.

He half expects Ray to say something that’ll simultaneously make and ruin the moment, but Brad looks at him, and Ray’s just gone, his eyes wide and his pupils blown, just staring at Brad’s face like he can’t get enough. And he can’t, and neither can Brad, and the bond has made that apparent to the both of them. Brad wonders what Ray’s getting from all this, what new he’s learning about the inside of Brad’s brain, and so he thinks of how he felt singing in the Humvee with Ray, how he felt kissing Ray that first time, and jerking off to him in England.

Brad hopes it’s enough, hopes those feelings are good, because Ray deserves good things in his life, and Brad wants to give them to him. There’s a second where Brad remembers the one moment that changed everything, meeting Ray in Afghanistan, and how he felt so off-kilter, so much like he had to have Ray with him, and right now, in Ray’s shitty house and on Ray’s shitty bed, Ray smiles like that’s the one thought that makes all the difference.

Brad gets his act together, pulls out halfway and then fucks back in hard, and Ray squeezes his eyes tight, lets his mouth drop open.

“Shhh-it,” Ray says, breaking it up into two separate words, and if that’s what he likes, that’s what Brad will give him.

Brad fucks Ray long and hard, as hard as he’s fucked anyone, but this time, there are all these emotions everywhere and it makes it all feel like something he’s never done before. He’s not going to last, feeling enough for two people.

Brad loses track of time, just keeps fucking Ray like he can’t get enough, lost somewhere between their bond and the sheets. He pulls out and slams back in, and Ray slides up on the mattress at the force of it, tipping his chin back and throwing his arm over his eyes as he does. He wants to lean forward and bite at his throat, and so he does, but he also grabs Ray’s elbow, slides his hand along Ray’s arm as he moves it away from his face, and presses it into the mattress, his hand wrapped partly around Ray’s wrist, two of his fingertips ending up halfway over the heel of Ray’s palm.

Ray closes his hand so that he’s holding onto Brad’s fingertips as they fuck, and it’s the most intimate thing Brad has ever done.

It’s fucking embarrassing, but realizing that hits him like a ten ton truck, and he’s coming before he can get ahold of himself, his mouth open and pressed to Ray’s throat.

Brad pulls out, and when he does, Ray’s hands scramble along his back, and he’s saying, “Homes, homes—Brad, shit—please

He sounds absolutely wrecked, and Brad can’t help himself, just reaches down and thrusts two fingers into Ray, quick and easy because he’s loose and dripping come and lube.

Brad gets a hand around Ray’s cock to jack him off, and Ray’s talking like he’s finally come back into himself now that the bond has been completed and they’re out the other side together. He’s saying, “Get me off, Brad, come on,” and, “Look at you; fuck, look at you,” and Brad wants him to say more, wants to make it so he can’t find the words to say anything at all.

It doesn’t take too long for Ray to come. Brad’s jerking him off, and Ray’s watching him, sitting halfway up, his stomach muscles straining. He reaches one hand forward to try to grab at Brad’s hair, and when that turns out to be too short, he settles for curling his fingers gently around Brad’s ear. Brad turns his head and bites him on the inside of the wrist, and that’s it, Ray coming all over Brad’s hand.

They lie there for a few minutes, panting heavily and just existing together, in the bedroom and through the bond, Ray up by the pillows and Brad somewhere by his hips. Brad feels drained, can’t do it again and can’t wait to do it again, and Ray feels the same thing, exhausted, open and happy and in love.

“Shit, homes,” Ray says finally, sounding considerably more put together than earlier, “I knew it. The second I saw how big your cock was, I knew it.”

Brad doesn’t even have to ask, doesn’t bother dignifying that with a response, and just says, “Your ass was the first part of you I saw.” He doesn’t know if he means it as a compliment or an insult or what, but Ray laughs anyways.

Brad moves up the bed, to the point where he and Ray are eye to eye. Ray smiles a little, and mushes half of his face into the pillow, and then Brad takes his own, puts it over Ray’s face just for a second, as if he were smothering Ray.

Ray laughs when he pulls it back and says, “Yeah, right, homes. That sex we just had was fucking stellar; no way you’re offing me now.”

“At least you’re good for something,” Brad says, and Ray beams like that was the highest compliment Brad could have paid him.

 

Brad wakes up in the morning with Ray plastered to his side and immediately goes into fight or flight mode.

“Go back to sleep, you fucking psycho,” Ray mumbles, effectively stopping that, and then he undulates his hips, rocks himself against Brad’s thigh. “It’s not morning ‘til the cock wakes up and says so.”

“You’re not on a fucking farm, Person,” Brad says, looking at the ceiling, and then he winces when Ray uses his elbow on Brad’s chest to push himself up.

“Are you freaking out?”

“No,” Brad says, but it’s obviously a lie, even without the bond. Brad doesn’t do strings attached, and doesn’t know where to go from here, or what has to change for them to keep going.

“You’re such a fucking baby, dude,” Ray says. “We just had the most amazing sex—bonded sex, homes!—and you’re gonna pussy out on me. Unbelievable.”

“I’m not pussying out on you,” Brad says. “I’m just—I’ve never done this before.”

Ray stares at him for a second and then asks, “Do you listen to like, half the shit that comes out of your mouth? You’re acting like I get bonded the second Tuesday of every month. I don’t have any fucking clue what I’m doing, either, and you’re not helping by making me think you’re gonna dip out.”

“I’m not going to dip out,” Brad says.

“Then what’s the fucking issue, homes?”

And the thing is—Brad doesn’t know how to articulate the fucking issue; he doesn’t know how to articulate most things. But he thinks of Tricia, of how she is with Brad’s ex-best friend, all their fucking family photos on the wall and the way they refuse to be apart for five minutes, and the way they immediately had to have kids, settle down, do the family thing—and Brad’s not a family thing kind of guy. His heart starts racing at the thought, just really going fast at the thought that this whole thing might end that way—two kids, picket fence, staying put and trading in his bike for an SUV with a third row—whether he wants it to or not. He can’t do that, and even if Ray wants it, Brad won’t buckle and give it to him, because then he’ll spend the rest of his life resenting Ray for it, and if he’s going to resent Ray, then he’s not sure there’s a point to even being with him in the first place.

“Stop it,” Ray says, reaching over and putting his hand over Brad’s heart, his palm warm on Brad’s bare chest. Brad’s heart just keeps racing, his mind spinning, and Ray looks like he feels the same way. “Jesus Christ, you’re gonna give me a heart attack, homes.”

“I can’t,” Brad says, but that’s not really what he means. “I think the bond fucked up,” he tries again. Ray stills, and Brad—that’s not what he means, either. “I’m a shitty person to be with, but I’m not going to change. I don’t want a family and I don’t want to live in Nevada, and I’m never getting rid of my bike unless it’s to get a better one, and I just—you need to know that.”

“Fuck, homes,” Ray says, and for a second, there’s no reaction other than that, but then Ray’s mouth twitches, and he ducks his head to try to hide it. He mushes his face into Brad’s chest, smiles into Brad’s skin, and then, probably just because he can, he bites Brad’s nipple hard enough to sting.

Brad hisses in a breath, and Ray runs his fingertips over his teeth marks.

“I’ve wanted to be with you since the day I fucking met you,” he says, making a face like admitting something that gay is physically painful. “I don’t wanna be with Stepford Wife, Brad Colbert. I know you think you’re all educated and shit, but even the most boot-fuck idiot knows that being bonded means wanting someone exactly as they are. Where the fuck are you from that you don’t know this?”

“I don’t know,” Brad says honestly.

“And I’m the Whiskey Tango retard,” Ray says, but he says it like, Where the fuck would you be without me? At this point, Brad doesn’t know, and doesn’t really want to find out.

He can’t say that, though; instead, Brad says, “Probably still lost in Afghanistan, with broken radios and Colt Adams behind the wheel of my victor,” and Ray just laughs.

Brad’ll take it.

 

"You know what there is to do in Nevada, Missouri, homes?" Ray asks the next day, as the two of them cut through the parking lot. "Jack and shit. Like, this is a fucking Wal-Mart, and it's basically the most interesting thing we've got."

"This explains so much about you," Brad says.

"Fucking nobody is from here, you know?" Ray continues, ignoring Brad. "The closest thing we've got to a famous dude is Jesse James's brother. Not even fucking Jesse James is willing to be from this shithole."

"You're from this shithole," Brad says, and he means it as an insult, as something with a bit of a sting, but it doesn't come out sounding that way, and Brad can't really be assed to care.

"Exactly," Ray says, just as they reach the automatic doors. "That's what I'm saying. I'll be more notable than like ninety-five percent of these assholes once Rolling Stone writes his article. Hey, homes, wrong way."

Brad stops where he is, a dozen or so paces into the store, and then turns around, follows Ray as they make a sharp right and walk along the front wall of the store, right past the registers.

“I thought you wanted to buy lube and a frozen turkey so you could give the check-out girl a fucked up social deviant to talk about,” Brad says, lagging behind Ray.

“Some things are more important, Brad,” Ray says. “But yeah, that too. For now, though…” He makes a ta-da motion towards the wall.

Brad looks up and there it is, the Nevada, Missouri Wal-Mart Wall of Heroes. Ray’s there, in his fucking dress blues, and there are dozens of other pictures, mostly pimple-faced kids, but some grown men, too. Brad’s not sure which category Ray’s old picture falls into; it’s probably in a category all its own.

“You see how I’m at the top?” Ray asks, pointing.

“Yes, Ray,” Brad says. It’s sort of like dealing with a child.

“It’s like I rule over all these other retards,” Ray says with a wry grin, and Brad nods.

“Ray Person: King of Retards. I see it now.”

Ray just rolls his eyes, says, “Yeah, fuck you too, homes. But it’s like, see that guy?” He points to eight o’clock. “Jeff Rucker; biggest fucking piece of shit on the planet. Dumber than Encino Man at his worst, and a giant fucking dick on top of that. Actually, it’s like—Wal-Mart Wall of Heroes? They should call it—fucking—Ray Person’s Giant Wall of Dicks.”

“In which case,” Brad says, “I can’t help but notice the absence of my picture, which is arguably the only picture that should be up on your Wall of Giant Dicks.”

“Giant Wall of Dicks,” Ray corrects. And then, putting a hand over his heart, he says, “You’d be up there, but Bradley, you know I would never distribute your likeness without your permission.”

“Good,” Brad says dryly, only as serious as everything that’s come before it in this conversation. “I’d hate to have to disown your ass.”

And Ray fucking beams as he says, “Yeah, you would.”

Brad rolls his eyes, because now that Ray knows where he stands and knows that Brad’s not going to change his mind, he’s become unbearable.

“Alright,” Ray says after a second more of staring at the wall. “Well, that’s enough of that.”

“I had enough of that just hearing about it in Iraq,” Brad says, but Ray just laughs, shrugs like, What can you do?

“Yeah, yeah,” he says, and then in retaliation, he says loudly, “Now let’s go get tons of Astroglide so you can ravish me later, you gigantic Hebrew sex fiend.”

The teenage boy working the customer service desk shoots them a half-scandalized look.

“Shut the fuck up, Ray,” Brad says, more of a knee-jerk reaction than anything else; Ray being Ray hardly fazes him anymore, and he is going to fuck Ray later.

“Hey, is there anything you want to buy while we’re here that you can’t get in England? Like Oreos or something?” Ray asks as they walk up and down the aisles. He snags a random baseball hat as they walk buy a display, and he puts it on, keeps walking.

“It’s not Baghdad,” Brad says. “You can get American food there.”

“Well, homes, I don’t know!” Ray says. “I’m just looking out for you. I did some research about it, and they eat the fucking weirdest shit over there, like Bubble and Squeak. Bubble and fucking Squeak, I’m not even kidding you. That’s not food, that’s—fucking—the noise a dolphin makes, you know? Don’t quote me on it, but I’d almost rather eat spotted dick.”

“Can’t say I’m too surprised,” Brad deadpans, watching Ray try on a pair of women’s heart-shaped sunglasses.

“I’m telling you,” Ray says, checking himself out in the small mirror nearby, “England is seriously fucking gay.” Then he turns to Brad, a smile on his face, and he says, “Homes, be honest: do these sunglasses make my ass look fat?”

 

They don’t last too long in Wal-Mart after that. Brad blames it on the bond, on how Ray’s a horny motherfucker who can’t keep anything he’s feeling from slipping through to Brad’s side, but Ray just smiles and asks, “How do you know it’s not you? I know you like my ass, homes.”

“Just fucking drive, Ray,” Brad says, because he’s half hard in his jeans and refuses to get off in a Wal-Mart parking lot.

Ray gives him a sarcastic salute and speeds down the road and away from all those people. The breeze from the open window is nice, cools Brad down as they drive through a stretch of open back road nothingness, but Brad hardly pays any attention to it, instead choosing to look at Ray’s profile, at the slope of his nose and the way his cheeks dimple as he smiles. Brad wonders how he never really noticed any of that before. He shifts in his seat.

“Five dolla, make you holla,” Ray says, leering at him. “See something you like, homes?”

And it’s fucking embarrassing, the way Ray makes him feel, how shit lines like that work just enough to get Brad’s heart rate up, to make him put aside the Iceman façade and palm himself through his jeans, saying, “And what if I do?”

It’s un-fucking-believable; Brad’s not used to this, to wanting to be so open with someone else.

The truck swerves sharply as Ray curses, “Motherfucker,” before straightening the car and pulling off the side of the road. He stops abruptly, and Brad jerks forward in his seat, held back only by his seatbelt.

“What the fuck,” Brad says. He’d have thought Ray hit something, because Ray’s never driven like that, not in all their time sharing a Humvee, only he knows Ray didn’t, and he didn’t see a thing.

Ray takes a deep breath and then turns to Brad, one arm draped over the steering wheel, an elbow on the center console. He licks his lips.

“Homes,” he says slowly. “This is a back road that nobody ever takes, and you are fucking killing me with your giant Hebrew cock and the fact that I’m not touching it.”

Brad takes a second to think about it, because car sex was never something that he was ever interested in, not with Tricia, not with anyone before or after, but it’s just Ray, and so Brad says, “Okay.”

“Maybe I’m not being clear enough,” Ray says, like he’s made a mistake. “I’m about to bust a nut just thinking about you sitting next to me, homes, and I know you can feel it, and I swear, I’m not normally so fucking—”

Okay, Ray,” Brad says again, because those are the only words he has at his disposal, and so to ensure that the point gets across, he undoes his seatbelt, lifts his hips a bit so he can unbutton his jeans.

For a second, Ray just blinks at him like it’s some sort of trick, but then he takes off in a flurry of movement, undoing his seatbelt and pulling his t-shirt over his head by the back of the neck. His jeans are unzipped, falling down his hips by the time he tries climbing between the two seats and into the back. It’s a tight fit and it doesn’t go smoothly, the bird tattoo on Ray’s shoulder mashing into Brad’s face in the attempt to get back there.

“That is a tight fucking fit, homes,” Ray says when he’s finally splayed across the back seat, breathing like he ran a marathon. “You’ll have a hard time with that; you’re all limbs, like a fucking giraffe; you might not even be able to do it, I don’t fucking know.”

And Brad can’t help himself, can’t help the small smile that slips through before he manages to reign it in. Ray sees it, though; Brad knows he does, because he suddenly feels a rush of pride that’s not his own.

“Step one, you make-out point reject,” Brad deadpans, and he opens the door. “Step two,” and he gets out, shuts the door behind him and opens the back door. “Step—”

“Step three better be you sucking my fat cock,” Ray says, and Brad rolls his eyes, knocks Ray’s legs out of the way so he has room to climb in.

“When did you get one of those?” Brad asks, and Ray clutches at his chest, makes a noise like a dying man’s last breath.

“You wound me,” Ray says.

Brad closes the door behind him and then immediately crowds up into Ray’s space, presses him back against the other door as he lays his body out over Ray’s. Ray is easy, pliable and willing, and Brad likes that, likes how Ray wants to do whatever he wants him to.

Brad kisses him slow and dirty, too much tongue and too much teeth, one hand splayed out alongside Ray’s jaw, and that’s all he does for the longest while, just holds himself up over Ray and kisses him until Ray’s lips are plump and pink, and his hips are rocking back and forth, meeting nothing but air.

“You fucking asshole, homes,” Ray says, his breath short. “Like I don’t know what you’re doing.”

“What am I doing, Ray?” Brad asks, and he moves one hand in between their bodies to flick open his own jeans and lower the zipper. He pushes down his briefs just enough to get his cock out and in his hand, and then he strokes himself once, twice, three times. He looks down the length of his body at what he’s doing and thinks about how good it feels, concentrates on the feel of his calluses on his shaft, the weight of his balls, and he sends all those thoughts and feelings through the bond.

Ray lets out an embarrassing sound that’s half groan, half whine, and scrambles his hands to his own fly, saying, “Fuck, homes, fuck.

Ray can’t get his own cock out fast enough; the second his jeans are out of the way—no briefs, and Brad chooses not to comment—he’s got his cock in hand, jacking off quick like he’s in fucking Iraq and they might be Oscar Mike any minute. Brad watches him do it, watches when he twists his hand or runs his thumb along the underside of the head, watches when Ray squeezes tighter at the base, because he wants to know what Ray likes so he can do it himself later.

And then Brad thinks—Brad thinks that’s bullshit, because he already knows what Ray likes. That’s the whole point of this fucking bond, to know someone else, and Brad knows Ray, can and will make it good for Ray.

He knocks Ray’s hand aside and then lines up their cocks before wrapping one of his hands around the both of them, giving them one firm stroke. He looks at Ray, kisses him in the corner of the mouth, but Ray’s so distracted by the sight of Brad’s hand—and Brad knows that’s what it is, that he’s distracted by how big Brad’s hand is, how it fits around both of them the way that it does—that he doesn’t kiss back much. Brad doesn’t mind, because he knows that Ray’s still with him.

Ray’s head is fucking vulgar when the two of them are touching, a mess of want and need and more, and he’s always thinking about Brad, only ever about Brad, and Brad really likes that. It makes him want to earn it, even though he knows it’s not something that can be earned.

Brad loses himself in that, in the feel of their cocks and Ray’s spit-slicked lips and their tangled emotions, and he tries to bring Ray as close to the edge as he can, biting a hickey onto the soft skin of Ray’s neck, licking his way into Ray’s mouth, pressing his open lips against Ray’s and then not even kissing him, just breathing there together, just like that, as their hips stutter.

Brad gets close before Ray does, and so he pulls away, wraps his hand just around Ray’s cock and jacks him off, mouthing at Ray’s jaw until he’s coming, saying, “Shit, homes—fuck,” that last word drawn out into two syllables.

Ray is loose and lazy afterwards, just running his hand up and down Brad’s flank as he watches Brad jerk himself with Ray’s come, and Brad can feel that one in his chest, how much Ray likes seeing that.

It doesn’t take long before Brad’s coming all over Ray’s shitty shirt, just because he can. Ray doesn’t even mention it.

“Was that especially good, or am I just concussed from when I tried to dive back here?” Ray asks.

“I’m always especially good,” Brad reminds him, and he watches Ray watch him wipe their come off onto the car seats.

Ray doesn’t argue it, and neither of them says anything for the longest time. They just stay there in the backseat of Ray’s car, slumped together with their pants around their thighs, not really doing anything. It’s strange, how nice that is, actually; it’s nice to not feel like they need to kiss or touch, to not feel like they need to do anything they don’t want to.

Brad sits up eventually and shifts Ray’s legs around so he has room, and then he pulls up his briefs, his jeans, gets himself put away. He takes off his t-shirt, too, and uses it to wipe off his hands and his stomach before just tossing it to the floor.

Ray’s still lying where he was earlier, boneless, only in the time it took Brad to get himself together, Ray has found his heart-shaped Wal-Mart sunglasses and put them on. He looks ridiculous, and the only reason Brad doesn’t say anything is because Ray already knows. And so instead, he leans over, tucks Ray’s cock back into his jeans, carefully does up his zipper, and then looks out the window at the dirt road around them because it all feels overwhelmingly intimate.

“That’s the Iceman: cool under pressure,” Ray says, and Brad doesn’t know if Ray’s continuing their earlier conversation, or if he’s referring to how Brad almost can’t look at him because it hurts his chest so much.

Either way, he doesn’t feel the need to respond, and he doesn’t feel Ray worry about it.

Ray gets it.

 

The thing about them—and it’s got nothing to do with the bond, Brad is sure of that much—is that they like fucking, and they’re good at it, and so when they get back to Ray’s, Brad fucks him properly, Ray bent halfway over the kitchen table, its shitty wooden legs rocking back and forth with each thrust. They fit together when they’re fucking in a way that they don’t when they’re not—they occupy the same headspace, maybe—and it’s not a bad thing, not a good thing; it just is, and that’s incredibly apparent when afterwards, as Brad’s doing up his jeans, Ray sit his bare ass down on one of the kitchen chairs and sighs.

“Sergeant Colbert, you’re my hero,” he says in a falsetto, and he looks fucking spent, his cheeks flushed and his pants still around his ankles.

“I’m a Staff Sergeant now, and you’re still nothing more than a goat-faced, Whiskey Tango miscreant who doesn’t understand the function of clothing,” Brad says. “I’ve been eating in here; your mother visits and eats in here. What the fuck is wrong with you?”

Ray lets out a bark of laughter and says, “Homes, we just fucked on my kitchen table; my chairs will survive a little bit of ass. Actually, they could probably do with a little more; take your pants off and let me see your cock again.”

“Well, Ray,” Brad says, shooting him a sharp smile, “you have to earn it.”

“Jesus Christ,” Ray says, and he rolls his eyes so hard that Brad’s surprised they don’t fall out of his head. “You’re just as uptight after coming your brains out as you were getting shot at in Iraq. I should have known.”

Brad doesn’t respond—partly because Ray’s right, and partly because Ray’s a classless, scrotum-faced, brain dead idiot—and instead fills himself up a glass of water and contemplates taking a shower. When he turns back around from the sink, Ray has taken a banana out of the fruit bowl on the nearby counter and is lazily but lewdly fisting it.

Brad just stares at him for a second before asking, “Ray, were you raised by wolves or are you just so fucking hopeless that you actually find this humorous?”

“It is funny, you fucking weirdo,” Ray tells him.

And Brad—the thing is, he doesn’t mean anything when he says what he says next, because they’re just shooting the shit, just talking trash because that’s what they do. He says, “Thank god I’ll be rid of you when I head back tomorrow,” and he expects Ray to says some shit about his lack of belief in god, or about how his family is Jewish, or maybe even about farewell blowjobs because that’s how Ray’s fucked up mind works.

Instead, Ray puts the banana down and looks right at Brad and then right over Brad’s shoulder at the kitchen cabinets. Brad can feel his apprehension like sliding into a tub of ice.

“Yeah, what are we doing about that, anyway?” Ray asks, and that—that puts Brad on edge, because they talked about this, about how Ray’s not in the Corps anymore because that was his decision, and how Brad is because that was his.

It’s so fucking stupid, this feedback loop of anxiety that they have going.

“What do you mean, what are we doing about that?” Brad asks. “I’m going back.” He knew—he fucking knew that this would happen, and he’s so mad at himself for thinking, even for a second, that maybe it wouldn’t, that maybe Ray would be the exception and not the rule.

“I know that, homes,” Ray says.

“I fucking told you none of that was going to change,” Brad says, and he hates that he probably feels more desperate saying that than he does angry. He wishes Ray was wearing more than just a t-shirt, and thinks about snapping at him to pull up his fucking pants. “You knew that.”

“I know that, homes,” Ray says, but he doesn’t look mad, doesn’t feel mad, mostly just seems like he thinks Brad’s a fucktard. “I don’t fucking want you around all the time, who are you kidding? But I meant—after. Or when you have leave.”

Brad sort of just deflates when he hears that, immediately and without any thought, and he feels like an asshole. He feels fucking dumb, too, because if he just reached out, if he just opened his mind a little, he would’ve noticed how Ray was feeling, would’ve realized what he really meant. This bond shit is new to Brad; he’s not used to it, but he’s trying.

“Hey, homes, I know you’ve got your hang-ups,” Ray says quietly. “And I get that,” and it sounds a lot like, And I don’t care.

Brad wants to comment on that, wants to say, Thanks, or, I don’t care about yours either, or even just, I kind of think I might really love you, but he’s shit with words, and Ray already knows all that, anyway.

“It wasn’t about the headaches,” Brad says. He thinks about asking Ray to move into his place, thinks about saying that they’ll see each other more that way because Pendleton is right there, and he will, but he doesn’t say it just then.

And maybe that was the right thing to say, after all, because Ray smiles like he’s embarrassed at being caught, and shoves one hand up his shirtsleeve to scratch his shoulder.

“Just double-checking, homes,” Ray says.

And it’s just—it’s not very Ray, to be so unsure about anything, that it sort of throws Brad for a loop, and a little bit makes him feel guilty for jerking Ray around for so long. But Brad is nothing if not competent, nothing if not good at what he does, and he knows how to take care of the people he actually gives a shit about. He told Walt to get some sleep, and told Trombley to drink more water; he can tell Ray to stick with him for a while longer.

“Come back with me,” he says. “Book a hotel and just stay for a few days.”

“Okay,” Ray says, and he doesn’t miss a beat.

 

Brad’s standing in the middle of an airport bookstore two days later, reading the back cover of Operation Iraqi Freedom: Bringing Peace and Stability to Post-Saddam Iraq, when military boarding for his flight is announced over the intercom. He puts the book back on the shelf and walks away, shifting his bag higher up on his shoulder as he heads towards his gate.

Across the way is one of those bullshit duty free stores that sells useless shit to idiot travelers, and Ray’s in there, his back towards Brad as he looks at something in his hands. It’s an inflatable neck pillow, and Ray is everything that is wrong with the world.

“Come on, Ray,” Brad says when he’s close enough. “Put down the fucking neck pillow; it’s our turn to board.”

“No, homes, it’s your turn to board,” Ray says, turning to face him. “I’m not military anymore; I don’t get to go early.”

“Yes, you do,” Brad says. He thinks that if he leaves Ray to his own devices, he’ll either get lost or distracted like a fucking child, leaving Brad to fly to England alone. “You get to board with me because you’re my bitch.”

It’s not, strictly speaking, true, but Brad’s in his fatigues, and he doubts they’ll stop Ray just because he’s not.

“I object to that on so many levels, homes, but I’m gonna bite my tongue because I want first dibs on the overhead storage,” he says. “Some retards bring the biggest fucking carry-on bags, let me tell you.”

“Please don’t,” Brad says, and Ray looks at him like he’s become predictable.

Ray tosses the neck pillow carelessly on the first shelf that has room, and then the two of them walk the short distance to their gate. They show their tickets to the airline employees and head down the gangplank, the two of them let on early without a problem.

“Told you,” Brad says.

Ray shrugs like he doesn’t particularly care, and then asks, “You didn’t buy that book?”

“It was just liberal bullshit peddled by and written for idealistic civilians who don’t know shit about what war is actually like,” Brad says, shaking his head. “Reporter’ll blow them out of the water if he ever decides to write a book.”

“Reporter,” Ray snorts, laughing to himself. He cuts Brad off as they’re boarding the plane, so he can walk down the aisle first, because he’s a little shit. “I feel like a proud parent, thinking about him. What row are we?”

“Nineteen.”

“Nineteen,” Ray repeats, and then picks up where he left off, “Rolling Stone came to us half a retard, and left us at least three quarters a man. Do I get a tax write-off for that?”

“All you get is the satisfaction of a job well done,” Brad tells him, and Ray makes a noise in the back of his throat like Brad was suggesting something much worse.

When they reach their seats, Brad takes a book that the LT mailed him out of his backpack and then tosses his bag overhead. He and Ray argue over the aisle seat as everyone else boards, and in the end, Brad gives it to him, half just to shut Ray up, and half because Ray bartered away the first blowjob in England.

They’re quiet for a while after that, the two of them sitting shoulder-to-shoulder and waiting for the plane to take off. Brad can’t imagine doing this alone, if Ray couldn’t come with him for the week, and he doesn’t want to imagine what it’ll be like when he heads out to do a tour of Iraq with the Royal Marines and his RTO can’t come with.

“Hey, Brad?” Ray says, turning towards him just as the plane starts moving. He looks unusually serious, but his eyes are light, happy. “I know you’re emotionally retarded and shit, but for what it’s worth, I’m glad it all worked out.”

Brad knows exactly what Ray means, but since he can’t find the right words to say it back, he just says, “Yeah,” and hopes it sounds more like, Me too.

Ray smiles real wide, like maybe he understands more than Brad was even trying to convey, and he says, “Homes, quit being so gay.

Brad just rolls his eyes and smiles back, and lets everything Ray’s feeling wash over him in waves.